Each film from auteur Wes Anderson is more meticulously crafted than the last. His latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a fairy tale for adults, with a precise vision honed into brilliantly executed set pieces, populated with quirky characters in a delightful storybook world. It’s a fun and fast-paced film filled with adventure and intricate beauty.
The common Wes Anderson themes are all here: the substitute father figure, the precocious and intelligent youngster, the idealized perspective on adolescent love. There’s also a slew of winks and nods to secure this movie in the Wes Anderson lexicon: abundant pastels, exciting montages, a resident cast, and unique facial hair. Fans of Anderson’s storytelling and visual styles will be all but overwhelmed by this one.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is the story of an author telling the story of someone telling him a story. As such, it takes place in three time periods: the ’30s, the ’60s, and the ’80s. The majority of the action takes place in 1932, where M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the ultimate concierge at the legendary and eponymous hotel, is framed for the murder of one of his elderly lovers. He recruits the freshly employed lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) to help him — with everything from taking dictation to escaping from prison.
The performances are split between subdued and exaggerated. While Adrien Brody’s spoiled and sinister Dmitri seems to be in a constant tantrum, Willem Dafoe’s Jopling shows little more expression than a stark grimace. Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Harvey Keitel all appear in extended cameos, helping transform minor roles into hidden delights. Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, and Jeff Goldblum also have supporting roles, rounding out an excellent ensemble.
Anderson’s unflappable artistic vision and precise direction give the movie an incredible ambiance, but also a sense of stiffness. Every shot is so perfectly balanced, you can feel the cinematographer’s hand, using a level and ruler to mark off the edges. The actors are so elaborately adorned that they feel like part of the scenery, and are alternately overpowered by the rigid framing while they struggle to rise above it. Fiennes feels the most natural and convincing as we watch his proper, elitist exterior crumble into frustration and desperation.
Unlike Anderson’s most resonant films, The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore, Grand Budapest hardly pauses for sentimentality. Emotional climaxes, even character deaths, are brushed past as off-screen peripheral events. Scenes that require suspense — a foot chase through a shadowy art museum or a fast-paced chase down a steep slalom track — don’t hold the tension they should due to a fairy tale tone and abrupt endings. Where we should be on the edge of our seats, Anderson pulls back. Amidst the dollhouse design and overgrown facial hair, there is emotional restraint. Perhaps the precision overpowers the humanity.
His most recent film, Moonrise Kingdom, held a different tone. It enhanced the film’s cathartic moments by filling them with wonder — amplifying them by funneling them through the eyes of an adolescent, and lending them an appropriately comic-book-like grandeur. In Budapest, each event feels meticulously placed and carefully paced.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t any emotional resonance here. The narrations which bookend the film add a larger context and simple but beautiful significance. There is a motif of the passing on and subsequent dissipation of values as the world invades our perimeters and intrudes upon our best intentions. Perhaps it was the storybook setting that had me looking for the moral of this movie, but whether or not you’re in it for the emotional impact, you’ll enjoy Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s a relentlessly fun, funny, and vibrant experience.