The Grand Budapest Hotel | Director Wes Anderson | Score: 6.8
I had the good fortune to celebrate my third birthday in Rome. My parents had taken my sister and me on one of those six-weeks-long European vacations that now can only be enjoyed by Germans or the gainfully unemployed. Of the day itself, I can remember certain foggy snippets: A chocolate birthday cake at our fancy hotel with sparklers showering the stone floor; one of our waiters driving his motorbike up a flight of stairs outside for reasons utterly lost to me, and the opportunity to drive a giant ferry we were on, pulling delightedly on the bellowing horn to warn other ships of our impending arrival. They are shadowy now, but still vibrantly etched in my mind. Indelibly linked to my warm affection for Europe, even if I only had half a sense of what we were doing there.
I imagine the fertile, creative mind of Wes Anderson to be a bit like that, using snippets of what must have been a hell of a wondrous childhood spent in Houston to craft splendidly winsome films, filled with his signature art direction and impeccable composition. Anderson’s films have a lovable innocence to them — a bit like Dignan, the wide-eyed character his good friend Owen Wilson played in Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket — which, when coupled with his sterling creativity and nostalgic love of the ephemera of earlier eras, can strike one as delightfully affable or aggravatingly twee, like a wax-tip mustached Brooklyn artisan in a pair of overalls and home-cured moccasins.
I fall solidly into the first camp. His work is so visually striking, so absolutely committed to their peculiar settings and characters, I find them well irresistible. His new film, with its no less than three separate framings and wildly abundant cast — a veritable who’s who of former Anderson favorites along with a multitude of new faces — is a tour-de-force of his distinctive style.
We begin our first frame more or less the present day with a determined young woman paying homage to an unnamed author (Tom Wilkerson), whose book she begins to read right next to his copper bust; our second frame is this author himself back in 1985, presenting, with some interruption from a small boy, the material we shall be seeing, almost like Alistair Cooke intoning another episode of “Upstairs, Downstairs”; the book he is reading from involves an adventure he says he gleaned while staying at the Grand Budapest in 1968 — its formidable elegance already long gone to seed, his younger self (Jude Law) meeting by chance the owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham, making another wonderful stop on his sizable comeback tour), the richest man in the fictional country of Zubrowka, where the hotel is located. Zero’s story takes us back to 1932, when he was just a young immigrant lad with a grease-penciled Errol Flynn mustache, working as the Lobby Boy for the hotel under the extremely careful tutelage of the Hotel’s first and finest concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a dashing chap prone to caring so much for his guests — especially the elderly and fabulously wealthy women under his gentle provision — they fall madly in love with him.
And thus it is that Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), just such an elderly and wealthy widower, leaves a priceless painting to him, to the steadfast fury of her son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), and his German henchman, Jopling (Willem Defoe, with a bulldog underbite and flat-head rings menacingly on each finger). M. Gustave eventually gets framed for the duchess’s murder, leading him to prison, a brilliantly executed escape and, eventually, a confrontation with his various enemies at the summit of a high mountain peak.
Anderson’s charming constructions always play to his considerable strengths, an underappreciated skill that has only gotten more honed with each subsequent cinematic confection. Ergo, there are his stately compositions, lots of maps and additional writing materials, fantastical characters in comic-book clothing ensembles, and a rousing fascination with the intricate trappings of an era (here, Anderson has great fun with trains, rail cars, ski lifts and trams). In that, he might have just crafted the absolute apex of his vision with the hotel itself, a vast, primary-colored fantasia of stairs, hallways, suites and vestibules, churning with energy, color and superbly rendered negative space.
As always, his ensemble of first-rate actors — here delightfully sporting winsome facial hair of many imaginative varieties — seem more than game to channel the dreamy, slightly ridiculous characters of his conjuring. Fiennes, always a marvel, is excellent, as is Defoe (the man is simply born to play twisted villains), but Anderson also gets a great performance out of the one relatively unknown actor, the 17-year-old Tony Revolori who plays Zero as a dutiful youngster.
Evocative and warmly familiar without ever feeling rehashed, the film falls neatly in place in the Anderson oeuvre. Someday, a retrospective of his work might reveal just how the quilt of his individual creations are all cut from the same swatches of fabric yet remain so resolutely separate from one another. Until then, we have another minor masterpiece to add to his growing pile of textiles. He remains a filmmaker of whom we can be exceedingly glad has never fully let go the enthralling permutations of his childhood wonder.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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