Silver Screen: The Grand Budapest Hotel ****
A popular complaint from Wes Anderson detractors is that the director is repetitive and too content to stay within the confines of his established style, making more movies of similar theme and tone for his devoted cult following. It’s not entirely untrue. Anderson has never tried to defy expectations by making a more modern, straightforward drama, or even applied his fastidious do-it-yourself aesthetic to a sci-fi film or some other genre category. He’s less interested in thinking outside the box than he is wrapping that box in hand-painted paper, sealing it with a curlicued bow, and addressing it with a nametag written in impeccable calligraphy.
But nobody makes movies like Wes Anderson. His style is not just immediately identifiable, it’s unmistakable. While other moviemakers chase trends and craft homages to their arthouse heroes, Anderson forges right ahead making Wes Anderson pictures. Fifteen years after the release of Rushmore, the surprise may have dimmed, but the appeal of the movies has not. Any given year’s new Wes Anderson movie might be awfully similar to previous Wes Anderson movies, but it’s never like any other film released that year.
The Grand Budapest Hotel may be the director’s most Wes Anderson-y movie yet. It reunites a supergroup of the auteur’s regular collaborators (including Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Jason Schwartzman, and Harvey Keitel), the art and set design is as fastidious as ever, and the hotel setting is a perfect staging ground for his macro-dioramas. It’s jaunty, twee, preening, and laced with melancholy. Hey, it’s Wes Anderson. It’s pretty damn neat.
Newcomer Tony Revolori stars as Zero Moustafa, a teenage lobby boy in a lavish European hotel in its heyday between the two world wars in the fictional country of Zubrowka. Zero is the protégé of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a zealous, eccentric hotelier prone to providing special attention to wealthy older women. Whether or not his geriatric dalliances are entirely a figment of his sexual peccadilloes or are partly a money-making scheme remains unclear.
When wealthy dowager Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) dies, she leaves a significant part of her estate to her former steward and lover. D.’s family (including a hilariously angry Adrien Brody) is aghast and alleges that Gustave must have tricked her into changing her will and subsequently murdered her. Gustave and Zero steal the Madame’s prized possession, a riotously unappealing painting called Boy with Apple worth millions of dollars, and abscond back to the hotel while they are pursued by agents of her family, one of whom (Willem Dafoe) is a member of the special police force working for the tyrants threatening to instigate another world war. (The police’s black-and-silver attire and lightning-bolt-punctuated symbol signal that they are, in fact, Wes Anderson’s cartoon version of the S.S.)
The Grand Budapest Hotel veers from mannered silliness into something akin to drama, then back to silliness again. It’s Anderson’s biggest movie in both scope and consequence. The action careens across Europe, or some alternate version of it, and operates on the fringes of a global event. It’s the first movie in which his characters face significant danger, murder included, and the heavier stakes occasionally make the cartoonish whimsy feel dissonant.
But it’s not to be taken too seriously. Anderson is an antirealist who reasserts the fictional divides in Grand Budapest’s opening sequence, a recursive postmodern gag in which a young girl visits a statue of her favorite author, who wrote a novel called The Grand Budapest Hotel. Here there are shades of Alec Baldwin’s narration from The Royal Tenenbaums, which suggested that movie was an adaptation of a Salinger-esque novel. Anderson takes it not one but three steps further here, cutting from the statue to an interview with the author himself (Tom Wilkinson, in a brief but very funny scene), who then recounts the tale of an encounter he had as a young man (played by Jude Law) at a hotel with an aged Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who relayed to him the story that constitutes the bulk of the film.
The story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-story framework isn’t just intellectual gamesmanship, it’s a statement of purpose from a director making fictions that are self-consciously aware of themselves as fictions and in no way seek to blur the line between life and fantasy. That’s true of Anderson’s entire body of work, although it’s noteworthy that Rushmore is the outlier, and despite the evolution of his style, it remains his most potent, affecting work. Rushmore, unlike Anderson’s other movies, lived in the shadow of a grim reality; all of Max Fischer’s elaborate fictions and fixations were a barrier to help protect him from the pain of losing his mother. The never-seen Mrs. Fischer looms over the film and quietly drives the story, and the pain of her death remains the closest Anderson has come to raw, unprocessed emotion.
Everything in The Grand Budapest Hotel has been processed, refined, and manicured. Anderson exerts total control over everything, from the set to the costumes to the actors. (The entire film was crudely animated on something called an animatic so that the action was storyboarded down to character movements and camera angles; the performers were largely acting out Anderson’s animated fantasy.) That gives him power, and yet despite his wonderful comic timing and aesthetic magnificence, you can’t help but wish for some slight intrusion of messy reality, something jagged or unfiltered to throw the careful polish into sharp relief and remind us of the limits of control.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.