"The Grand Budapest Hotel" Well Worth A Reservation

Wes Anderson doesn’t make movies. He makes living, pulsating dioramas, splotched with color, inhabited by kooks, and lousy with style, as if from a parallel universe in which “anachronism” is another word for “timelessness.” His brand of esoterica is equal parts irreverent and deeply personal, making for often unsolvable cinematic riddles. But they’re all the more fun in their opaqueness. Since his debut feature, 1996’s “Bottle Rocket,” Anderson has remained steadfast in his own weirdness, often doubling down on said eccentricity to mostly wonderful results (“The Darjeeling Limited,” his weakest effort to date, is merely adequate).

In carving out a cozily exclusive corner for himself in the world of indie filmmaking, Anderson has lost as many fans as he’s gained, his bag of tricks wearing thin on some. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” isn’t exactly more of the same – it’s the closest he’s gotten to an action film, although “caper” is a more apt word – but even if its heightened visuals, frenetic pacing, and wondrously odd characters do hew too closely to his past works, more of the same from Wes Anderson isn’t a tragedy.

As such, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is playing with house money. Detractors be warned, this is vintage Wes, from the fancifully picturesque establishing shots to Alexandre Desplat’s quaint score to the impeccable (but predictable and slightly overcrowded) supporting cast. Yet, anyone who loves the majority of Anderson’s work will find plenty to go gaga over here, especially Ralph Fiennes’ first collaboration with the filmmaker. It’s a doozy of a performance.

Fiennes stars as M. Gustave, concierge at the Grand Budapest Hotel and ostensible gigolo. As an unspoken part of his job, he beds many of his elderly female clients, his flamboyant manner and sexual ambiguity not exactly belying his duty to his customers. Aside from his employees, Gustave is seemingly without family, making his sexual escapades all the more comprehensible – and his burgeoning friendship with a lobby boy in training all the more endearing. Said lobby boy, Zero Moustafa, is played by relative newcomer Tony Revolori, whose understated charm occasionally steals the film from Fiennes.

The narrative is unusually framed, beginning in the present day with an unnamed author (Tom Wilkinson) relaying an encounter he had as a young writer (his younger self played by Jude Law) with the owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel (F. Murray Abraham). It’s the 1960s and the hotel has fallen into disrepair. The new owner proceeds to tell the story of how he acquired the property, beginning with Gustave’s influence on him and the hotel, circa 1932.

We follow Gustave’s rise and fall from unexpected heir to the wealthy Madame D. – one of his elderly romantic partners (Tilda Swinton, in convincing old-age make-up) – to his eventual imprisonment at the hands of her conniving son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Willem Dafoe turns in a memorable performance as Dmitri’s malevolent, brooding right-hand man while Jeff Goldblum turns up as the executor of Madame D.’s will. Plenty of other Anderson stalwarts are present in supporting roles – Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson.

The writer-director expertly uses the breadth of his cast to wring humor from a surprisingly dark screenplay – it’s easily his most violent to date – but it’s Fiennes whose surprising performance breathes the kind of fresh air into the project that a group of Anderson regulars can’t. The actor walks an amazing tightrope between several different types of comedy, all while conveying significant emotional depth, making for one of the most unique and endearing protagonists in Anderon’s filmography. It’s no surprise that Wes wrote such a meaty role, but it’s nothing short of magical to see it so beautifully realized on screen.

Those looking to “The Grand Budapest Hotel” for the reinvention of a filmmaker will be disappointed, and those looking for prime Wes Anderson might be, too – it doesn’t come close to the emotional intensity of “Moonrise Kingdom.” But it may just scratch an itch you didn’t know you had. Do the proverbial they not “make ‘em like this anymore?” No, because they never made them like this. Wes Anderson films are a genre unto themselves, and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” might be the first of his films to take that distinction for itself.

That Gustave’s portion of the film is framed in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1 (the standard of decades gone by) only heightens the idiosyncratic nature of the picture, a tactic sure to please fans and alienate most everyone else. And that’s the rub. The film’s familiarity is real – you’ve seen much of this cast paired with this cinematic voice before – but it’s a sure bet for anyone interested in the first place. Whimsical, frothy fun doesn’t go down any easier than this, let alone with a performance as marvelous as Fiennes’. Chalk up another one in the win column for Wes.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: March 7, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenwriter: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson
MPAA Rating: R (for language, some sexual content and violence)