Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

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THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is Wes Anderson-y even by Wes Anderson’s standards. A vividly colourful cornucopia of eccentric characters on an elaborate farce barely contained within Mr Anderson’s utterly unique “Wesworld”, it’s certainly an experience to watch. It’s also probably my favourite film Anderson has done after his two masterpieces THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS and RUSHMORE, though it’s by no means perfect.

We first see the titular hotel long past its glory days, as a young writer (Jude Law) visits during the late 1960s. While staying at the near-deserted, fading establishment, he meets the owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who tells the remarkable story of the Grand Budapest, and how it came into his hands. It is the early 1930s, and young Zero (Tony Revolori) arrives for his first day as one of the hotel’s numerous reliable lobby boys. He is taken under the wing of exacting and impeccable concierge M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) who really is the best at what he does, from day-to-day management of the hotel, to marshaling an army of staff to give top-notch service, to providing sexual gratification for rich aristocrats in their twilight years. When one such elderly lady, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) whom Gustave is particularly fond of, dies and leaves a valuable painting to her favourite concierge, her bickering extended family smells foul-play, and Gustave is framed for her murder and incarcerated. As Zero’s story unfolds, it only becomes stranger, and much more complicated.

It almost goes without saying that, like all of Anderson’s movies, The Grand Budapest Hotel is impeccably scripted, quietly amusing and beautiful to look at. Eye-popping colour and meticulously, almost obsessively centrally-framed shots demonstrate that Anderson is stubbornly sticking to his signature style, perhaps even hightening it over time, but the addition of a liberal dose of slapstick and exaggerated physical comedy here is a new one for him, unless you count it done in stop-motion in FANTASTIC MR. FOX.

It’s Ralph Fiennes’ show, and the veteran thespian demonstrates a mastery of comic timing, both verbal and physical, hitherto not even hinted at in his career (leaving aside IN BRUGES). Fiennes is ably supported by promising newcomer Tony Revolori, solid villain performances from Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe (scenery-chewing and quietly terrifying respectively) and F. Murray Abraham as our world-weary narrator. Anderson has also of course brought together all his usual collaborators in addition to a few new arrivals to Wesworld for a series of entertaining brief turns and cameos.

Narrative style-wise, The Grand Budapest Hotel feels closest to Anderson’s unconventional family dramedy The Royal Tenenbaums. That film played like (and literally featured) turning pages of non-existent literary epic, and Budapest goes further in its narrative emphasis by not only dividing the story into distinct chapters, each with their own tone, colour palette, even genre and aspect ratio, but is also a story within a story within a story told by several narrators.

The film joins a long line of fellows (DUCK SOUP, Universal’s FRANKENSTEIN) set in a stylised never-Europe, and this makes it about this world but not of this world. Anderson makes much of the story’s setting in the early 1930s, and references real history and real horrors, but the locations are made up and it’s full of anachronisms. If it was more grounded in reality, the darkness that creeps into the final act might feel a bit much, but Anderson strikes about the right balance by keeping us one step removed in a near-fantasy.

The more surreal comic scenes feel like Monty Python sketches, an effect emphasised by Terry Gilliam-esque animation used in establishing shots and the tissue that connects sequences together. It is a jarring effect, but it’s jarring in a good way (if that makes sense).

Sadly, like most of Anderson’s movies (sorry, but it’s true), Grand Budapest does go off the rails a little towards the end. It happened with BOTTLE ROCKET, it happened with DARJEELING LIMITED, it certainly happened with MOONRISE KINGDOM and it happens again here. Anderson always starts with a great idea, but he doesn’t have restraint, and always wants to keep embellishing the idea long beyond what the story can comfortably accommodate. I like that he’s ambitious and committed, and I’d never ask him to tone it down, just cut the story a little shorter before it gets too…off. I’ll admit that I should have given in when Gustave and Zero end up (for some reason) in a monastery atop a snowy peak, seemingly just to have an excuse to ski off it in an odd animated race sequence.

If you love, or are at least intrigued by Wes Anderson’s unique filmmaking style, or even if you just want to see Fiennes flex his surprisingly taut comic muscles, The Grand Budapest Hotel has a lot to offer. If you find Anderson grating and pretentious, then his latest won’t change your mind, but even then it’s fun to play a game of Spot the Massive Actor in a Cameo Role. Will Wes Anderson ever tone it down? Probably not, but if his weird and wonderful mind keeps coming up with such skewed gems as this, then at least American filmmaking won’t be dull for a long time to come. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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