Sustaining The Illusion: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

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By now, the phrase “A Wes Anderson Film” carries with it a vast, intricate stylistic template, dictating everything from set design and title fonts to a precise sensibility refracted through distinct character types, situations and humor. What tends to get lost when thinking about the films solely via their director are the extraordinary, revelatory lead performances which uncover other dimensions to them: think Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer, Gene Hackman as Royal Tenenbaum or Bill Murray as Steve Zissou (or Herman Blume). On occasion, Anderson achieves a similar effect via a true ensemble (for instance, MOONRISE KINGDOM, in which both Bruce Willis and Edward Norton revealed new facets of themselves, albeit in smaller roles); still, think of how different BOTTLE ROCKET might’ve been without Owen and Luke Wilson, or FANTASTIC MR. FOX without George Clooney.

Likewise, it’s hard to imagine Anderson’s eighth feature without Ralph Fiennes. Often cast as either a villain (a Nazi in SCHINDLER’S LIST, Voldemort in the HARRY POTTER series) or a romantic lead (THE ENGLISH PATIENT), he hasn’t had too many straight-up comedic roles. Credit Anderson, then, in perceiving this ability in Fiennes: his Gustave H. is an inspired creation and one that suits the actor beautifully. As head concierge of the film’s titular institution, he’s outwardly cultured but never a crass snob, convincingly virile (he irresistibly and literally charms the pants off a certain kind of woman) but unapologetically fey (he refers to all, female or male, as “darling”), effectively commandeering in his work but respectfully modest of his place and role (look at the shabby servants quarters where he resides). When one of the film’s narrators says, “His world had vanished long before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace,” one suspects Fiennes kept those words in mind throughout filming—he’s fitfully funny, but, like the best Anderson heroes, he never obscures his character’s dignity and gravitas, his insecurities sometimes abruptly but always believably surfacing to show he’s more than a caricature.

This is alternately Anderson’s European film (shot in Germany but set in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka), his early 20th Century period film (mostly set in 1932) and his action/adventure caper film (his first to climax with an epic shoot-out!). The story of Gustave H., told via a literary device akin to what THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS used, begins briefly in the present, steps back for a moment to 1985, then further back to 1968, where our first narrator (Jude Law) visits the titular hotel, now a tarnished, horridly “modernized” shell of its former self. He meets owner Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who recounts how the Grand Budapest came into his possession following his stint as the hotel’s young lobby boy, mentored by the legendary Gustave H. We learn that the sudden, mysterious death of Gustave’s dearest companion (an unrecognizable, aged via makeup Tilda Swinton) set off a chain of events involving a desired, rare painting, the companion’s vengeful son (Adrien Brody), his violent, evil henchman (Willem Dafoe, perfectly cast), a young bakery worker with a facial scar in the shape of Mexico (Saoirse Ronan), plus stints in prison, an impending war and a slew of cameos from Anderson regulars (Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Owen Wilson, among many others). Newcomer Tony Revolori rounds out the cast as the young Moustafa, often holding his own with Fiennes.

Less a departure for Anderson than a continued honing of his particular (some less charitable would say peculiar) sensibility, its jaunty pace and positioning as an unambiguous comedy give it a wider-than-usual appeal, which may explain why it will likely end up his biggest hit to date. It is immensely enjoyable and, like all Anderson films, endlessly rewatchable, with subtle details making themselves known on subsequent viewings. For me, it falls short from occupying that upper echelon of Anderson’s works because it simply doesn’t resonate as deeply. I’m not certain as to exactly why—all the elements are there, from Gustave’s character arc to his mentoring of Moustafa, but nothing here is as, for lack of a better word, special as the wistful, final shots of RUSHMORE and MOONRISE KINGDOM or those moments of understanding organically established between various family members throughout THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. Still, this is ultimately a minor quibble for a film with more than enough to recommend it, even to those who don’t like Wes Anderson, though thankfully, he’s remained true to himself—I’d much rather he made an imperfect film than a calculated, crowd (and detractor) pleasing one.  Grade: A-