Director Wes Anderson is known for being in acquired taste and I’ve always found myself somewhere towards the middle with him. The strongest proponents of his work find Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, and others to be brilliant. Frankly, I do not. However, I’ve yet to watch an Anderson picture and not come away with giving it a recommendation – some more highly than others (Tenenbaums is my personal favorite).
There is nothing about The Grand Budapest Hotel that changes that dynamic. Like his aforementioned efforts, some have found this to be a masterpiece and I disagree. Yet again – the aspects that are great are truly remarkable. The majority of the pic takes place in the 1930s when The Grand Budapest Hotel is a thriving business located in the made-up European Republic of Zubrowka. The head concierge is Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), with a penchant for romancing the wealthy older (much older) female clientele of the establishment. One current conquest is Madame D (Tilda Swinton with one heckuva old lady makeup job). It is Madame D’s murder that leads to her concierge lover being framed and he must clear his name with the assistance of his best Lobby Boy Zero Mustafa (Tony Revolori). This is all set against the backdrop of the outbreak of World War II and Anderson’s screenplay manages to occasionally integrate the tragic elements of the war with the madcap events happening before us. The story is told in flashback with 1980s Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) recounting the pic’s events to a writer played by Jude Law. And even the Abraham/Law dynamic is a flashback itself with a modern-day Tom Wilkinson as an older version of Law.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is loaded with actors in supporting roles that Anderson has used many times. They include Adrien Brody as the Madame’s conniving son, Edward Norton as a police inspector, Harvey Keitel as an inmate helping Gustave, Jeff Goldblum as a lawyer tasked with the Madame’s complex will, and smaller roles from Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman. There’s also Saoirse Ronan as Mustafa’s love interest. The cameos by Murray and Wilson felt a bit perfunctory to me, as if Anderson simply felt the need to include his usual standbys, but the director’s biggest admirers will probably appreciate their inclusion.
For all the considerable star power inhabiting Hotel, it’s the Gustave/Mustafa relationship that fills most of the brisk 99 minute running time. And it’s the until now unknown impressive comedic chops of Fiennes that is by far the highlight. Known for being a serious actor, the actor seems to relish playing this zany character and spouting Anderson’s dialogue. I suspect he may become yet another staple of the director’s troupe (I hope so).
The production design and cinematography are fantastic. This is an absolutely gorgeous picture to look at and Anderson evens shoots Hotel in three different aspect ratios in relation to each time setting.
As already stated, the most rabid aficionados of Anderson’s work will adore this. Somewhat surprisingly – Budapest managed to breakthrough to the mainstream more than any other of his pictures with a wonderful $162 million worldwide gross. I say surprisingly because I put this on the same level with most of his other efforts. This is a consistently amusing comedy with spots of true hilarity. The moments where Anderson injects emotion into all the craziness feels a little forced, more so than it did in Tenenbaums or Moonrise Kingdom. And any comedy that puts Bill Murray in a scene and doesn’t let him do something funny earns a demerit.
Bottom line: if you’re in the Anderson makes pretentious fluff camp, you’ll still be. If you’re in the Anderson is a God camp, you’ll worship again. Or if you’re like me… you’ll appreciate its finest moments without coming close to uttering the word masterpiece.
*** (out of four)