Mark Reviews Movies

The Grand Budapest Hotel


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson

MPAA Rating: R (for language, some sexual content and violence)

Running Time: 1:39

Release Date: 3/7/14 (limited); 3/14/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 14, 2014

Here is another storybook adventure from writer/director Wes Anderson and yet another display of why he is among the most unique American voices in modern-day cinema, as well as one of its most meticulous craftsmen. The whole of The Grand Budapest Hotel, though, is something entirely different from Anderson, even if the particulars—the attention to every tiny detail of the design, the pretty-as-a-picture composition, the swift pans and tilts of the camera, the quirky characters—are entirely familiar.

For here is an Anderson who observes these characters and, after coming through the other side of the dual bookends that frame the film, comes to the conclusion that, in the end, it was all for naught. We've seen characters in his films who are pessimistic, trapped in the past, ready to end it all, and otherwise downright downers, but through it all, there is the sense that Anderson is sitting in the wings, rooting for these people to break free of whatever binds them. It's an optimism that might be considered hopeless except for the fact that the omnispective observer is also the omnipotent orchestrator of these characters' lives, and no matter what trials they must endure, the auteur behind it all will eventually set things right.

That's also part of the specific plot of this film, but layered on top of that is another, overarching one that is utterly nihilistic on the surface. It's only a pittance more hopeful if one employs some rose-tinted rationalization.

This is not depressing, though. It's more of a melancholy elegy for a bygone era that the film constantly reminds us—through details, both big (a fabricated country) and small (the use of miniatures and mattes)—never really existed, and as it turns out, even Anderson at his most pessimistic still offers a film that is, for the most part, cheerily and nearly intoxicatingly affirming.

If one needs evidence as to the ultimate goal of the film, it begins and ends in a cemetery at some time near the present day. A girl enters—her walk accompanied by a trio of chanting monks. The statue of an author—a "national treasure," reads a plaque—stands in a place of honor among the gravestones. The girl pulls out a book—the author's. The scene moves back in time to 1985, and the author (Tom Wilkinson) is narrating his tale, interrupted on occasion by his grandson playing in the same room.

There's a key point that is easily overlooked simply because Anderson begins with a memento mori and turns it into a far more comforting reminder—that they lived. Once again, the film moves into the past, and in 1968, the author's narration is overtaken by his younger self (Jude Law), who has arrived at the Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional country of Zubrowka, located on the furthest border of Eastern Europe in the Alps. The exterior is represented in a dreamy mixture of paintings, models, and automated toys.

The hotel is a "relic," decorated in puke green carpet and popsicle orange paint on the walls, as was the style of the time. Everyone there is sad, the author notes, but only one man appears to be lonely. His name is Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the proud former concierge and current owner of the hotel. He's also a fan of the young writer's work and agrees to tell him the story of how he came to own the establishment without buying it—over dinner in a grand ball room that is illuminated like a stage where the lights rise and fall on dramatic moments of Mr. Moustafa's story.

The story shifts backwards in time once more, as Moustafa takes over narration duties. It is 1932, and Anderson and cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman match the shift by swapping anamorphic widescreen for the period-appropriate Academy ratio. It might seem a hollow, too-clever trick, but the necessity to cram the frame—comparatively speaking, of course—gives the proceedings a lot of comic tension, as the actors are rarely more than a foot away from each other, and complements Anderson's tableau form of narrative shorthand—such as the proper introduction to one villain with a shot looking down at the weapons arranged on his desk—incredibly well.

Overseen by the charmingly foppish and genteelly profane M. Gustave (a note-perfect Ralph Fiennes), the hotel is at its apex of success. Gustave takes a young Zero (Tony Revolori), a lobby boy at the time, under his wing to teach him the finer points of hotel management.

There are other lessons, too, such as the benefits of wooing and bedding older women with lots of money. That might seem a rather despicable and manipulative, but he's genuine about his attractions and does actually care for the women ("It was his duty, but it was also his pleasure," Mr. Moustafa fondly reminisces), especially Madame D. (Tilda Swinton). Her unnatural death sets in motion a series of misfortunes involving a priceless painting, dismembered digits, pastries, a decapitated head in a basket, a chase down a mountain rendered in stop-motion animation, a jealous son (Adrien Brody), a prison break, a birthmark in the shape of Mexico, a skeletal assassin (Willem Dafoe), a territorial conflict that foretells a greater war on the horizon, and other flights of fancy and deeds of the dastardly.

The film, inspired by the written works of Stefan Zweig, is part comedy of manners (often involving the juxtaposition of the need for class with the anachronistic bits of the crass—a lurid painting, jokes about people questioning Gustave's sexual preferences, liberal but not gratuitous usage of those prime four-letter words), part penny dreadful, part coming-of-age story, part examination of geopolitical and intranational tensions, and parts of other motifs and homages that are either so obvious or so obscure that it would be easy to neglect them. Within each of these parts are elements of the comic and somber. They are always at odds with each other, but such, as the man said, is life.

In the end, though, Gustave tells his young apprentice, there ultimately is no point, and that is the harshest contrast in a film that takes such joy in its finer points. The Grand Budapest Hotel, which—taken with the rest of his oeuvre—reflects an artistic and philosophical evolution for Anderson, ends where it begins—where all stories must end—and with that sobering reminder of the inevitable. In its wake, the film leaves far more questions than answers—questions, indeed, to which we will never have the answers. We do know that the stories last, and if that's not enough of an answer, it is at least a comforting thought.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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