Film Reviews

The Grand Budapest Hotel Wes Anderson

Rating - 8/10

You’ve probably already made up your mind about Wes Anderson, so your reaction to this review is probably a foregone conclusion.  I think there is such a thing as taste, in the sense that my taste may not conform to your taste, even if we can acknowledge the things we should like about the other’s passions.  Then again, people evolve and tastes change and there’s always hope for rapprochement on divisive subjects.  For years, I was a Beatles guy and appreciated, but never really listened to, the Rolling Stones.  Now I love the Stones and perfectly understand the folks that trumpet them as the best rock band ever, even if I still don’t agree.  Similarly, an artist as vaunted as Neil Young has always left me cold.  Not to mention whole swaths of genres from country, rap and R&B.  I love some of all of it, but mostly, it’s not my thing.  So I get that, and I also get that Wes is not some people’s “thing” either.  He has a Style, and there’s no mistaking it.  First truly hinting at this style in The Royal Tenenbaums, with a reliance on symmetric framing, unnatural blocking, stop motion and painting.  If anything he’s only doubled down on these idiosyncrasies with each subsequent film, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is no different.  People have called it almost a parody of Wes Anderson film, but that’s like saying Start Me Up is a parody of a Rolling Stones song.  Sure they’d done it a thousand times before, but, news flash, that’s what they do – they make Rolling Stones songs.  Wes Anderson makes Wes Anderson films, and like he acknowledged recently on the NPR show Fresh Air, it’s how he likes to see things.  He’s not going to turn into Chris Nolan anytime soon, so people should just stop expecting it.  

But for the one or two folks who are on the fence about this singular filmmaker, I’ll make a quick case for why you too should be a Wes Anderson fan.  First, if you’ve ever seen an animated or fantasy film and liked it, you have no reason to object to Anderson’s wholly invented world.  He makes fables, and though the characters typically look like you and I rather than short Brits with hairy feet, there’s no reason for you not to suspend belief in the same way you do for all the summer blockbusters.  Second, he makes beautiful pictures, and all the elaborate set design, color and mise en scene is there to delight the viewer.  Rather than complain about how it doesn’t look real, get out of your own head and just enjoy looking.  It’s ok to be impressed once in a while Mr. Hipster.  Third, the movies are about something.  Since Rushmore, death has been a major concern and I think one could argue that after Tenenbaums and the terror attacks of 2001, his approach to the subject has taken a more mournful tone.  Finally, he’s consistently funny in that his characters are always saying and doing surprising things, and movies at the movieplex these days, especially comedies, are hardly overflowing with wit. 

All of Anderson’s strengths are present in Budapest.  It’s a fable inspired by the work of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who wrote mainly in the interbellum period between the world wars, where this story is set.  It concerns a hotel manager, M. Gustave, played brilliantly by Ralph Fiennes, who frequently beds rich, elderly female guests in order to keep himself in fine pastries and hopefully one day landing himself an inheritance. This is exactly what happens when Madame D dies and leaves him a priceless Renaissance painting that will guarantee him the lifestyle he clearly feels he deserves.  The Madame’s morally compromised sons (Adrien Brody and a hilariously made up Willem Dafoe) refuse to let this happen and threaten Gustave, who with the help of his new lobby boy and future Budapest owner Zero Mustapha (Tony Revolori), steal the painting.  The influential sons have Gustave thrown in jail but not before he can hide the painting and make Zero his heir in return for his help.  Soon Zero falls in love with the pastry girl, Gustave breaks out of jail and Nazi-like troops are advancing, promising the end of the old world order.  More and more the influence of Ernst Lubitsch (Ninotchka andTo Be or Not To Be) is felt, as the action takes on a 30’s zaniness, though the plot development grows naturally out of the setup and impulsive nature of Gustave

Even more than usual for an Anderson film, this is a star studded affair and there’s a wonderful montage towards the end as several cameos pop up as hotel managers in the guild of Crossed Keys.  These actors clearly revel inhabiting Anderson’s world, and the doubters should sit up and take notice.  He lets them all bring a little something of themselves to these small parts as it always enriches his films.  Everyone is wonderful in the film, but Fiennes runs away with it, making Gustave one of the most indelible and rich characters in an Anderson film, a list already bursting with names.  His perfectly trained precision is just right for a man trying to maintain an order that is rapidly crumbling before his eyes; a consummate narcissist who is forced to look outside himself by the orphaned boy in need of a father, just as he is in need of the son he would have never had living this particular lifestyle in 30s Eastern Europe. 

As for me, when I wasn’t laughing I had a grin on my face that would only budge for the rare but special moments of pathos which Anderson drops on your head when you least expect it.  Everyone likes to rank Anderson films as soon as they appear, which is about as ridiculous as it sounds, since how can you compare the movie you’ve seen ten times over the course of a decade with the one you just walked out of?  I’ll refrain.  It’s a Wes Anderson movie; that should be enough.