AS WITH SO many of Wes Anderson’s movies (“Moonrise Kingdom”, “Fantastic Mr.Fox”, The Darjeeling Limited”, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” etc), there’s no easy niche in which to place “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.
This funny, entertaining concoction is a fantastical story within a story centering around one M. Gustave (an inspired piece of lunacy from Ralph Fiennes). Gustave is the hotel concierge whose suave, charming, bon vivant, lothario life-style is as much an attraction to the hotel’s guests as the place itself (or so we are told). Set in an invented country, located somewhere in Middle Europe in 1932, we follow the course of events that transpires when one of Gustave’s long-time guests/lovers, Madame D (a well disguised Tilda Swinton) is murdered. Much to the chagrin of her son, Dmitri (a menacing Adrian Brody), Gustave is left a priceless painting, which, in order to ensure that he really does get it, he steals (as one would). And as the geo-political convulsions of a war begins to take place, Gustave and his faithful lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori) must evade Brody’s evil henchman (an even more menacing Willem Dafoe with Jaws-like teeth and knuckle-buster rings on every finger), zealous policemen, led by a 19th century looking Henckles (Edward Norton), thick walled prisons and Nazi-esque army soldiers in a series of bizarre, madcap, cartoonish chases, shoot-outs, prison-escapes, stolen kisses, hidden lovers and secret codicils.
It’s a delight.
And all of which of course make for great story telling… “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing”
An old Zero (F.Murray Abraham), now owner of the Budapest Hotel, no longer so Grand, and in the grand tradition of Scherezade or the Ancient Mariner, narrates the story… to a young writer (Jude Law; outclassed in this cast of over-the-top thespians), who publishes it as a book, which is retold by him as an older man (Tom Wilkinson) – with little of the storyteller’s magnetic allure – to a hidden camera.
I am not a big Wes Anderson fan; I find that the deliberate theatricality and artifice of much of his work builds a kind of ontological barrier against the viewer. But with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” his mannered stylized story-telling works brilliantly. The exaggerated absurdity of the people and the place, art decorated with great care and craft to resemble the perfected fussiness of an elaborate wedding cake, with self-consciously sparkling repartee, is a wonderful and fully imagined creation. It creates its own quite distinctive, invitingly charming, slightly off-kilter world.
Quite frankly any artist who can create as distinct a story-teller’s vocabulary as Anderson does is worthy of high praise.
The director manages to have his elaborately iced cake and eat it too: the story both evokes a nostalgia for a lost time, for a kind of loss of grandeur and high style, while at the same time suggesting that such a time never really existed. This story of a story – an author’s elaboration of a story narrated to him – offers the viewer both a hint of the substance (the sadness, the greed and murder at the heart of the tale, the decay of what once was grand) and a focus on the style (urbane, patrician, theatrical) that suggests the decorum and good manners of the period…mere masks.
There’s probably also a bigger moral tale (from a distinctly American perspective) lurking around somewhere here: of Europe as the Grand Hotel – a place of has-been glories with its castles and schlosses and culture worth a visit but well past their sell-by dates.
Fiennes makes the movie. He invests the nouveau-riche dignity of his concierge with impeccable comic timing (who knew!) and allows us to see Gustave’s pathos and desperation shining through the cartoonish caricature of his clipped speech and antic gestures.
But it’s also one of those old-fashioned ensemble movies (not unlike “The List of Adrian Messenger”…how many of you remember that?) where we can delight in spotting the – heavily disguised – stars, all of whom were clearly having a ball.
It’s a list that’s long: Mathieu Amalric (he was the bad guy in “Quantum of Solace”), a bald shirtless (natch) Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray (who happened to be filming “The Monuments Men” in the same studio and so had his part written in for him), Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson.
Of them all, Jeff Goldblum, as Deputy Kovacs, an honest lawyer, shocked by the duplicity of his conniving client (Brody) shines through as a towering presence. He needs to stop doing so much TV and come back to the big screen. Maybe we’ll see him again in Jurassic Park IV.
Anderson who wrote the word-perfect script credits one Stefan Zweig, an Austro-Hungarian writer from Vienna, who became a British citizen and killed himself in Rio in 1942.
Hmm, I’m sure there’s a story there.