THE STORY – In the 1930s, the Grand Budapest Hotel is a popular European ski resort, presided over by concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). Zero, a junior lobby boy, becomes Gustave’s friend and protege. Gustave prides himself on providing first-class service to the hotel’s guests, including satisfying the sexual needs of the many elderly women who stay there. When one of Gustave’s lovers dies mysteriously, Gustave finds himself the recipient of a priceless painting and the chief suspect in her murder.
THE CAST – Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson & Tony Revolori
THE TEAM – Wes Anderson (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 100 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
Wes Anderson is a notably fussy filmmaker. His films are so highly stylized, his frames so rigidly composed, that it can be difficult to find any looseness anywhere. This is never seen quite so remarkably as in 2014’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a madcap caper set mostly in a highly aestheticized fictional eastern European country in the 1930s. It’s just as delightful as Anderson’s other films, if not more so, but often it seems like the stylization here is more in service to the time and place as opposed to elucidating larger themes, as in his best work.
All of Wes Anderson’s films are great feats of design, but none more so than “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. From the (wholly artificial) opening dioramas onward, the film is an absolute marvel to look at, with gorgeous scenic and character design coming at you from every corner of the frame. Anderson and his design team have perfectly captured the aesthetic of the grand hotels of early 1900s eastern Europe, as well as the wealthy patrons who stayed there and the countless staff members who kept them running. Indeed, in our introduction to the Grand Budapest’s concierge, Gustave H. (a perfect Ralph Fiennes), he’s ordering staff about in a way that would make the caretakers of Downton Abbey envious, barely breathing as he spouts instructions, put-downs, and compliments a mile a minute with the crisp, clean efficiency of someone who’s been doing this their whole life. Fiennes’ skill as an actor cleanly aligns with Gustave’s skill: It’s so invisible that you hardly notice it. He’s an invaluable asset to the film, almost more so than Anderson himself.
The whole film is just delicious on every level. Even the sound design is incredible – every single sound, no matter how faint, is still heard loud and clear even with Alexandre Desplat’s delightfully bouncy score bubbling along in the background. Each new place the characters go to is its own character with its own color scheme, style, and musical theme. This is a world to get lost in, and the many familiar faces of the cast make it feel more comfortable. As ever, Anderson is working in a very specific tone, and in the entire gigantic ensemble, there’s not a single performer who strays from it.
So, why then, does “The Grand Budapest Hotel” feel like a little less than the sum of its parts? Surely something this exciting to look at and listen to, something this light and entertaining, shouldn’t leave a viewer so unsatisfied. But Anderson wraps the main narrative of the film in a sort of metanarrative about being an author and telling stories, with three whole layers of stories within stories. The most notable is the one that takes up most of the first act where Jude Law’s “Young Writer” (Tom Wilkinson playing the older version in a one-scene cameo) spends an evening talking with F. Murray Abraham’s older Zero (Tony Revolori plays the younger version for the bulk of the film) about how he came to own the Grand Budapest. Think of it as Anderson’s version of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” or Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”: The film that serves as the auteur’s grand statement about his chosen medium and his relationship to it.
While this would seem indispensable to Anderson’s vision, it’s actually the biggest misstep in the film. The main storyline is so enticing on its own that the film doesn’t need all the extra layers, and Anderson seems to acknowledge this at the end by not returning to Wilkinson’s narrative and the film’s opening scene of a young woman reading his book at his grave. The scenes with Abraham and Law only serve to bog down the film with more themes and importance. While the two actors are charismatic enough to pull the scenes off, one can’t help but wish that their bits would speed by faster so that we can get back to the good stuff, especially since that stuff is so delicious. The majority of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is lighter than air, a nearly perfect cinematic soufflé, but the framing device brings it back down to earth. Nobody wants vegetables with their dessert.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A hugely entertaining romp through a world that could only have come from the mind of Wes Anderson, with a cast to die for and immaculate production design.
THE BAD – Anderson’s attempt to give the film deeper meaning bogs down the otherwise weightless film.
THE OSCARS – Best Costume Design, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Production Design & Best Original Score (Won), Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing & Best Cinematography