Wes Anderson! So happy his new movie finally came to the piddly little town I call home. His last film, Moonrise Kingdom, took several months to reach us, but this one only took, like, four weeks. Not bad. I’m actually studying Anderson’s filmography in a class this semester, so I was pleased on multiple levels to get to see this one, even though I ended up awkwardly sitting next to my professor. Anyway, he seemed to enjoy himself.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
The Plot: Although embedded within three frame narratives, the primary story takes place in 1932 and follows the misadventures of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the rakish and charming concierge of the world-renowned Grand Budapest Hotel. When one of his regulars/friends-with-benefits, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) is found murdered with Gustave named recipient of a priceless painting, he and his new lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) have to go on the run from Madame D.’s jealous, evil son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and his savage thug Jopling (Willem Defoe), whilst also evading the authorities and trying to discover who really murdered Madame D.
Wes Anderson is sort of like Woody Allen or Christopher Nolan, in that he can assemble an all-star ensemble cast seemingly from nowhere. The cast of The Grand Budapest Hotel expands to include Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Saoirse Ronin, Jeff Goldblum, Mathieu Amalric, Tom Wilkinson, Léa Seydoux, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Owen Wilson, to name just a few.
Anderson tends to excel as a writer of large ensembles, carefully balancing several fully-developed stories, as he does in The Royal Tenenbaums and the aforementioned Moonrise Kingdom. Actually, most of the characters in Grand Budapest have only fleeting appearances, or relatively little screen time. In this case, that isn’t a major flaw, but a byproduct of Anderson’s preoccupation with Gustave and Zero. Their relationship is at the center of all the action, in the midst of murder, mystery, mayhem, and a coming war. One of the imbedded frames features an older Zero (played by Abraham), telling his story to an author (Law). Although he divulges details of his troubled past and his romance with the young and beautiful Agatha (Ronin), his primary focus is on his mentor and friend. The very fact that this relationship takes the foreground amongst so many other important topics helps to develop both characters to the audience. Once you combine this with all the comedy and wit of their banter, you get two protagonists that I imagine would be hard not to engage with.
That brings me to another strength of the film: its comedy. Anderson is one of those few filmmakers who can (often) flawlessly oscillate between comedy and tragedy without causing severe whiplash. Grand Budapest is actually a surprisingly violent film. From the murder of Madame D. onward, a lot of people suffer pretty gruesome deaths. There’s stabbing, shooting, falling from great heights, and even a decapitation. In any other film I wouldn’t have been caught off guard, but Anderson (who usually has about one death per movie), tends to be subdued and deliberate in his violence. I found this film rather alarming in that respect. Of course, Anderson manages to strike a careful balance between this and the humor, and even serious violence doesn’t detract too heavily from the overall tone of the movie.
Again, however, like almost all of his other films, Grand Budapest is a heavily tragic movie. F. Murray Abraham’s character is steeped in nostalgia and sadness. All of the characters are. Like The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited, this is adventure as executed by sad, lonely people. There are moments when they are lively, excited, and even happy, but because it is told entirely through retrospect and because their lives are clearly about to be torn apart by an impending war, all pleasure and fun is extremely fleeting. The three frame stories serve nicely to augment this theme. The film opens and ends with a young girl reading a book, then cuts to the author (Wilkinson) recording some kind of introduction about how he learned the story, played out by Law and Abraham, and finally we get the primary action itself. The recurring motif throughout all of these frames is solitary people seeking comfort and meaning in cherished stories, not always realizing that the characters they’ve immortalized are also solitary, and that they have already died or will soon.
Kind of a downer, no? Most of this message is overshadowed by the riveting good time of all the action. I made it sound much sadder than it actually is. For much of the film, the audience can be like Jude Law and just get so caught up in the story and the characters that they forget the dark undertones. Actually, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a hilarious adventure, and easily the fastest-paced of Anderson’s oeuvre. It has everything you could want from an adventure movie: foot-chases, ski-chases, a prison break, art theft, forbidden romance, shootouts. The humor, of course, is incredibly quirky, so if quirk isn’t your thing, you probably won’t like this movie. Basically, at this point, Anderson has cemented his cinematic style. You can check out any of his movies and get a really good sense of what the other films look and feel like. Odds are pretty good that if you like one, you’ll like at least some of the others.
I’m not entirely sure, to be honest, but Grand Budapest might be one of his more widely accessible movies. The box office seems to suggest that, anyway, as this is his highest-grossing film to date. I’m saying nothing new in claiming that this is a high-quality film. As I mentioned before, it’s been out for quite some time, and has received both critical and popular acclaim. The movie has Anderson’s signature wit, quirk, and charm, but unlike some of his previous endeavors, it boasts a widely applicable message about the importance of loving relationships, and the role of stories in the quest to forge them.