The Grand Budapest Hotel is an emotionally layered, darkly funny, zany, extravagant blast of a motion picture. It’s further proof that Wes Anderson is one of the most important American directors working in the business, and a prime example of how to layer historical context into a film while juggling genres that fit the time period. The movie’s part murder mystery, part whimsical coming-of-age tale, part romance, and part buddy comedy, yet remains a singular tale of how one extraordinary hotel was marked by some captivating employees and visitors. The story follows Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a concierge working at the Grand Budapest Hotel during the 1930s, and his lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori). They handle their customers with the utmost care and urgency, providing any services they require in a timely fashion. Their goal is to be invisible but always present, as Gustave dictates.
The story uses a framing device where a writer, played by Tom Wilkinson, discusses how his book is based on true events. He jumps to when he was researching the book and the story moves to Jude Law’s younger version of the author, who is visiting the run-down, still functional hotel in the 1960s. He meets Zero as a much older, quieter man, who says he owns the hotel. They get dinner together and Zero lets this man know about his entire life story. It’s a bit of a stretch narratively, but we buy it because Zero feels lonely and can tell this man every secret of his life. Back in the regular narrative, Gustave finds out that an 84-year old woman that stays at the hotel often, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), has been murdered, and he is the prime suspect. He’s also given a painting titled “Boy With Apple” in her will, and it’s deemed priceless; her sons, played by Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe, won’t have that.
The narrative asks for convolution but doesn’t fall into that trap. Instead, it uses the mystery as a background for all of these characters and their eccentric journeys. Fiennes brings a complexity to Gustave that makes him a biting, vulgar, pleasant, and rather lovable man, but he’s also marked by loneliness and a general sadness about him. It works primarily because of Fiennes’ manner of portraying Gustave; he doesn’t make him overly sympathetic, but lets Anderson’s script speak for itself. Anderson uses this character as another one of his lead characters marked by a sense of individualism and purpose. There are also pleasant performances by Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and many others in roles that seem perfect for their demeanors. Anderson always has a knack for crafting characters that fit certain actors, hence him using so many of the same people in each of his films. But it works, pure and simple.
What remains so remarkable about Wes Anderson’s works is that they never come across as grating or insincere. Sure, these are characters that would never exist in the real world. Anderson’s vision of our world is simple, quaint, and manic, and the situations and personalities are always more vibrant and impractical than reality. But the reason that works is due to his infusion of earnest, sometimes painful human emotion in every film. These characters are always plagued by the same insecurities and beliefs that we have as human beings, and that makes some of his works more relatable than the most stripped, personal dramas out there. The Grand Budapest Hotel might be Anderson’s most extravagantly built film; this has to be the most detailed hotel we’ve seen on screen since Kubrick’s unforgettable Overlook. And here, the film’s a departure of sorts for Anderson, who manages to tell an effective mystery built upon a deeply moving, exciting, and honest emotional core.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)