Wes Anderson’s “The Great Budapest Hotel” is a great film but not, I hasten to add, for everyone. In all candor, I can’t even claim that the films of its unique writer/director are uniformly dazzling to me. I dislike “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” “Rushmore” and “The Darjeeling Limited” as heartily and vigorously as I would nominate “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Moonrise Kingdom” and now “The Grand Budapest Hotel” as being among the great English language films of the last 15 years.
Anderson’s best films are incredibly witty paradoxes by their very nature. They’re small, gemlike and precious, but they’re about very big and, indeed, sloppily human things. They’re miniatures, but they absolutely depend on a big screen for their revelation of how bedazzling miniatures can be.
Anderson is one of the great living young film visionaries, but he seems to be as averse to moving his camera – especially horizontally – as the crusty and long-gone Luis Buñuel. He presents you with perfect tableaux as if you were watching intricate slides change in a stereopticon or in a “gallery” on a website.
They’re impossible anywhere but in movies. And yet, invariably, they make people think of artists (Joseph Cornell, Paul Klee) and writers (Jorge Luis Borges, J.D. Salinger, Robert Walser and, in the case of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the writer Anderson confesses was his inspiration, Stefan Zweig).
Most important of all, for all their preciosity and specialization, the actors who make up his stock company are a kind of who’s who of American movie idiosyncrasy. In “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” you’ll find Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Jude Law, Jason Schwartzman, Tom Wilkinson and Owen Wilson.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is, superficially, a very complex and detailed film that can be digested in one sentence. It’s about a legendary concierge named Gustave H. in a legendary hotel in the mythical Slavic country of Zubrowka between the 20th century’s two world wars.
What you’re watching are complex stories of love, apprenticeship, theft and a fabled life of gentility that is all about to be consumed by history’s Holocaust. And yet, for all that, the tone is light, ironic and postmodern, not portentous. The irony is somehow what makes it moving.
This, then, is probably not a movie for the same people who were impressed by “Wolf of Wall Street” or “Gravity” or “Nebraska.” For anyone who suspects they’re on its wavelength, it shouldn’t be missed.
It begins with a typically droll Anderson joke common in Zweig stories. What you’re watching is a tale within a tale within a tale from a writer who claims that “once the public knows you are a writer, they bring the characters and events to you – and so long as you maintain your ability to look and carefully listen, these stories will continue to seek you out.” It’s a method that couldn’t have less to do with Anderson or to his supposed inspiration Zweig.
For all its teeming cast, the movie really revolves around one actor doing some of the wittiest and most exquisitely poised work of his life – Fiennes. He’s Gustave H., the bisexual concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel whose stock-in-trade is so much elaborate kindness and luxurious service that it doesn’t stop at sexually satisfying elderly heiresses.
When one of Gustave’s aged aristocratic consorts (Swinton) dies, she leaves him a valuable old painting that her most important heir (Brody) expected to inherit. Which leads to the painting’s pilferage and concealment by Gustave and his young apprentice “lobby boy” (Tony Revolori, who grows up to be F. Murray Abraham in the movie).
Which, in turn, leads to imprisonment of the two and then, in an utterly delightful scene, a jailbreak in which the great network of renowned European hotel concierges comes to the aid of the legendary Gustave H. Every one of whom is played in cameo by heavyweights in the cast list.
The love of actors for Anderson’s large, boisterous presentations of a small, bejewelled world comes from their understanding that when he is good, Anderson is doing something exquisite on movie screens they’ve not really seen before.
All of the actors in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” are delicious, especially Norton and Dafoe as Gustave’s antagonists. But it’s Fiennes who will remind you how often he has been tonally perfect in phenomenally difficult roles – in “Schindler’s List,” say, or Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days,” or as Charles Dickens in his own “The Invisible Woman.”
It’s the final credit of Anderson’s movie that tells us that this postmodern comic fantasy about what might seem the last days of Old World luxe before barbarism triumphed uber alles was inspired by writer Zweig.
Zweig is best known now for his great stories and novellas: “The Royal Game,” perhaps the definitive chess and madness tale; “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” which Max Ophuls turned into a film; and “Amok.” None of them bears much relation to “The Grand Budapest Hotel” – not as much as Zweig’s own life seems to have.
Even when he’s commenting on his own work, Anderson can’t resist making stuff up.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan
Director: Wes Anderson
Running time: 100 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for language, violence and some sexual content.
The Lowdown: Acclaimed deadpan Wes Anderson tale of Gustave H., legendary concierge of a legendary Eastern European hotel between the 20th century’s two world wars.