Grand Budapest Hotel, The (2014): Anderson’s Gleefully Overripe, Fantastically Detailed Confection

Of the generation of directors who came of age in the 1990s, Wes Anderson is one of the most fertile but also one of the most self-indulgent, making films that are at once inspired and confined by his admittedly creative imagination.

Most of his features are sort of candy-colored miniatures, heavily reliant on eccentric production design, and stories that unfold as pastiches, rather than coherent narratives.  The movies are made of idiosyncratic images, witty one-liners, droll sight gags, and some dead space among them.

Anderson’s strategy is manifest in his latest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a period dramedy set within the confines of a hotel, which offers legitimacy to his wildly inventive conceits.

What elevates the movie and keep us watching is a parade of name-actors, though not major stars.

As spectators, you really want to believe Monsieur Gustave, the suave Eastern European concierge splendidly played by Ralph Fiennes, who is easily the best thing in the film, when he says “The plot thickens.”  But, alas, the reverse happens, when we realize that there is not much substance to the story.

The idea for “Grand Budapest Hotel” is inspired by a character sketch about a mutual friend of Anderson and long-time collaborator Hugo Guinness, who shares a story credit.  Reportedly, Anderson began scouting locations in Austria, Hungary, Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic after being inspired by postcard-like photographs he found in the Library of Congress.

This time around, Anderson plays with both history and literature—European style.  The setting is the Republic of Zubrowka, named after the Polish Vodka Zubrowka, first seen as a bleak small state under postwar communist rule, but then, through flashback, in the grandeur of the early 1930s, when Gustave, a legendary man in his time, dominates the vast and elegant spa hotel.

Set at the fictional war-torn European country Zubrowka in the 1930s, the movie tells the story of two men: Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a manipulative if charming bisexual concierge, and one of his employees, the lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori).  The duo form a peculiar friendship, teaming up for several misadventures while trying to prove Gustave’s innocence after he was framed for murder.

One of his most joyous and charming features, Grand Budapest Hotel aims high. It’s meant to be a tribute to the work of legendary filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch and famous writer Stefan Zweig, but Anderson succeeds only partially in evoking the spirit of those two seminal figures.

The tale is intricately layered, all right, but it lacks the subtlety and nuance of either Lubitsch or Zweig.  It’s a movie in which some of the parts are engaging and fantastically detailed, but they do not cohere to a more meaningful or resonant whole.

Anderson again displays his penchant for creating alternate universes of his own, defined by a a lavishly baroque vision, occasionally laced with a playful tone.

It was a good idea to shhot the movie in at three ratios–1.37:1, 1.85:1 and 2.35:1–in order to inform the viewers where they are in the timeline, which alternates between three time periods: 1985, 1968 and the 1930s.

In a grand performance, Tilda Swinton’s dowager offers the impetus for the caper thriller: Her death sets the plot in motion, including a mysterious murder revolving around an invaluable Renaissance painting.

The central duo, the concierge and his naive protégé, Zero Moustava (Tony Revolori), form an Odd Couple, to say the least.  The sad-faced lobby boy may or may not live up to his name, as early on it’s established that he has no formal education or experience, but despite these zeroes, he rises to the occasion when needed, proving to be as resourceful as Gustave himself.

Artifice reign supreme in every aspect of the film—just observe the color palette.  As usual, Anderson relies on a talented group of craftsmen: production designer Adam Stockhausen, cinematographer Robert Yeoman, and prolific composer Alexandre Desplat.

Ralph Fiennes is one of the greatest actors working in cinema today, but he is mostly known for his dramatic work (Schindler’s List, The English Patient).  Anderson deserves credit for casting Fiennes in a lead role, allowing the actor to demonstrate his impeccable comic timing. manifest in the manner he delivers his lines and in making every gesture of his incredibly elastic face and body.

Ultimately, Grand Budapest Hotel comes across as a gleefully overripe picture, sort of a very rich, multilayered saccharine cake, from which you want to take one bite or two spoons, but not the whole thing.  Fortunately, the tale moves fast at an exhilarating speed, and is rather short, only 99 minutes.

Glorious Cast

Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave
F. Murray Abraham as Mr. Moustafa
Tony Revolori as Zero Moustafa
Mathieu Amalric as Serge X.
Adrien Brody as Dmitri
Willem Dafoe as Jopling
Jeff Goldblum as Deputy Kovacs
Harvey Keitel as Ludwig
Jude Law as Young Writer
Bill Murray as M. Ivan
Edward Norton as Henckels
Milton Welsh as Franz Müller
Saoirse Ronan as Agatha
Wolfram Nielacny as Herr Becker
Jason Schwartzman as M. Jean
Léa Seydoux as Clotilde
Tilda Swinton as Madame D.
Tom Wilkinson as Author
Owen Wilson as M. Chuck
Larry Pine as Mr. Mosher
Giselda Volodi  as Serge’s sister
Florian Lukas as Pinky
Karl Markovics as Wolf
Volker Michalowski as Günther
Neal Huff as Lieutenant
Bob Balaban as M. Martin
Fisher Stevens as M. Robin
Wallace Wolodarsky as M. Georges
Waris Ahluwalia as M. Dino
Lucas Hedges as Pump Attendant

Commercial Appeal

World premiering at the 2014 Berlin Film Fest, The Grand Budapest Hotel was released in the US by the entrepreneurial Fox Searchlight.  It was a commercial hit, earning $175 million worldwide on a $25 million budget.

Oscar Alert

The film was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Anderson, and won four Oscars: Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Production Design and Best Original Score.