The Grand Budapest Hotel – Check in to Wes Anderson’s latest wonderful world

There are a few sure ways to tell if you’re watching a Wes Anderson film. The kooky characters. The fast humour and quick, witty dialogue. Yet the thing that is the most telling is the intricate and glorious detail in every scene, so rich it rewards many repeat viewings. And The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) might be Wes Anderson’s most detailed and lovingly constructed film yet. Like his other work the story and setting is in its own contained, whimsically eccentric world, in this case the beautiful hotel of the title which resides in the mountains of the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. Within these hotel walls back in 1932 the hotel’s young lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) and his mentor, the head of concierge Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), became mixed up in a thrilling adventure involving a brutal murder, an accusation and a stolen painting. Yet while this film has a lot of similarities to Wes Anderson’s other work, with 3 different timelines and narrators The Grand Budapest Hotel is his most complex story to date.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

For the most part this film concentrates on the immediate timeline involving the antics of M. Gustave and Zero as they try to piece together answers to the mystery surrounding the death of Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), a death Gustave may well be implied in. But in his script Wes Anderson also jumps back and forth between this earlier time and a later time in 1968 in which we see the older Zero (F. Murray Abraham) recount this tale to a young author (Jude Law). He also uses a third, later timeline in which this same author, now older (and played by Tom Wilkinson), tells readers of his novel the very same story. Confused? Rather than becoming a convoluted mess though Anderson actually handles this technique with confidence and precision. His assured writing for each time period has a distinct feel to it, in particular the two earlier times. The story in 1932 is all about the adventure – exhilarating, fast-paced and very, very funny – while the second is more melancholy and the latest is a simple device that Anderson uses to bookend the story. These differing moods he has created for each timeline prevents the story from becoming a jumbled mess, in turn letting us become fully absorbed in Wes’s new world.

Anderson’s direction also ensures we don’t get lost, each timeline having a distinct look. He uses different aspect ratios to denote each separate time, an ingenious method that really works, especially on the big screen. The overall production design also differs for each time period – the main adventure in 1932 is colourful and vibrant (the hotel itself is a gorgeous bubblegum pink), while the sixties is all garish yellows, oranges and muddy browns. It is this sort of device and attention to detail that shows just how much care and consideration is put into every frame of Wes’s films.

The older Zero (F. Murray Abraham) in the duller Grand Budapest Hotel...

One other aspect that defines Anderson’s work is a satisfying balance of affecting drama and hilarious comedy – big laughs up against serious issues. Just think of the humour of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) interrupted by Richie’s (Luke Wilson) sudden suicide attempt. And The Grand Budapest Hotel, while it does have incredibly funny moments, also has a very dark streak running through it, as well as some genuine shocks (and even a little bit of gore). This can well be expected though seeing as how the overall story in 1932 is set against the backdrop of an impending war. But these serious moments don’t overpower the overall fun nature to the film. In fact while The Grand Budapest Hotel does have plenty of dark parts, it is actually Anderson’s funniest film in recent years. His last two films, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012), both had plenty of laughs, but this is one of the first Anderson films in which the humour feels more energetic and almost slapstick at times with its quick jokes, sight gags and even in his fast camerawork and the comical movements of his characters. For example one such scene (which also incorporates Wes’s love for long takes) is when we see M. Gustave walking and talking with Zero while being constantly harassed by multiple questions from the other staff, a hilarious moment of choreographed perfection from the versatile director.

There are of course also many laughs to be had in the exceptional dialogue throughout, every line of which the cast delivers with ease. However the one person who handles and delivers the dialogue with such comedic precision that it’s a wonder Anderson hasn’t worked with him before, is Ralph Fiennes as Monsieur Gustave H. A flamboyant character who beds older women and who prides himself on his appearance and scent (he’s constantly doused in L’Air de Panache cologne), Fiennes truly beings the character to life with a sometimes restrained, at other times hilariously over-the-top performance. Fiennes has never been funnier and clearly relishes every single scene he’s in, something that really translates to the overall feeling of the film.

M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) finds himself in a spot of trouble with the police...

There is many a regular Anderson face that pops up throughout The Grand Budapest Hotel as well: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, and many more all in funny cameos (some briefer than others). Yet it is probably Tilda Swinton as Madame D. who eclipses all of these. Even in such a short role a nearly unrecognisable Swinton steals each scene she’s in (even when she’s dead) as the elderly and practically blind widow. Two main newcomers to Anderson’s world impress just as much as the regulars though. Saoirse Ronan as Agatha the pastry chef adds sweetness to the story yet can also do funny when she needs to. And Tony Revolori as the heroic Zero is superb, handling the quick dialogue with panache, delivering lines in a perfectly hilarious deadpan, monotone voice.

While there’s no denying how magical and funny Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel really is, it isn’t his best. This is a hard thing to admit as it’s such a wonderful film to watch at the time that saying it almost feels like a betrayal. Yet while the usual Anderson elements that we’ve come to know and love from his work are all there, in comparison to his other films the story just isn’t as strong or interesting as his others. The 3 timelines work but the overall plot moves along at such a breakneck pace that we can’t get a grip on what is happening or, more importantly, really connect with any of the characters (for instance we don’t see much of Zero and Agatha’s relationship, a big part of the story and a bond that could have been as touching as that of the main two characters in Moonrise Kingdom). This results in an entertaining tale, but one that is ultimately not as memorable as something like the powerful and affecting family narrative of The Royal Tenenbaums.

Zero (Tony Revolori) and Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) on the run...

M. Gustave H. will most certainly be remembered up there with Steve Zissou, Royal Tenenbaum, Max Fischer and many more of Anderson’s other brilliant character creations. And indeed there’s fun, thrills and comedy aplenty to be had at The Grand Budapest Hotel, as well as many a gorgeous sight in the intricate look and design of every set and shot. Yet something still feels like it’s missing from Anderson’s script. Maybe a more pared-down storyline with a slower pace might have allowed for a little more heartfelt connection in the narrative. Yet despite this not being his best, you’ll still want to check in more than once with these crazy characters and this new Wes Anderson world.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on May 12, 2014.

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