Wes Anderson is one of the most polarizing film directors in the industry . His massive following of will tell you he’s a genius, one of the most inventive and witty directors in the business. Others will tell you he directs overrated bunk aimed at sucking in hipster’s and heart-broken teens. The Grand Budapest Hotel won’t convert much of that second group to the Church of Anderson, but it gives the former what they wanted and then some; it’s Anderson’s most flamboyant and over-the-top piece of work yet, but beneath that opulence are beautiful shadings of nostalgia, isolation, and heartbreak.
Zero Mustafa, a young immigrant, is the newest bellboy at the Grand Budapest Hotel- then, one of the finest in the world, and certainly the finest in the nation of Zubrowka, which appears to be a cross between 18th Century Vienna and Transylvania. Zero learns under the strict and strange tutelage of M. Gustave, the hotel’s flamboyant concierge. But when one of Gustave’s dear friends dies under mysterious circumstances, leaving him a large inheritance, and he is framed for murder, the witty concierge finds himself in desperate need of Zero’s help. The result is a crazed adventure that brings the duo across the vast pseudo-Eastern European landscape that Anderson paints. They flee a Cossack-esque league of policemen, depending on their wits (or, rather, Gustave’s) and secret societies to evade capture, as well as Agatha, a young baker and Zero’s girlfriend. It watches like the crazy lovechild of Dr. Zhivago and Midnight in Paris.
Anderson is first and foremost a storyteller. He aims to bring his story- the costumes, the set, the music, the characters- to life before your eyes. And that’s where he excels. From the beginning, Anderson lets us know that we are watching a story unfold. The very first scene shows a girl opening a book at an author’s grave, which tells us that we are seeing this tale through the eyes of the author- who, in turn, is seeing events through an aged Zero Mustafa, who he finds at an even more aged Grand Budapest Hotel. We, the audience, realize how long ago the story occurred, and how much the story has perhaps changed over time, the bombastic nature of the movie becomes altogether believable. Every fairy tale, after all, probably began with a true story.
The characters of this great adventure, like many of Anderson’s, are a bizarre cross between classic archetypes and the absurd. Zero, an orphan, is in some ways the young lover, in others a stone wall who hardly reacts to anything- unlike Gustave, who, despite being older and exceedingly more confident, emits a sort of neurotic charisma. There’s also his rather unsettling romantic interest in women of advanced age, which would be repulsive if any other character ever written partook in it, but seems bizarrely natural, considering his profile. Gustave could sell an ice cube to a polar bear. Agatha, though the love interest of the story, is much bolder than any Rapunzel or Snow White.
The villains of the film, the brutish Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody) and his monstrous righthand man J.G Jopling (Willem Defoe) are a perfect contrast to Zero and Gustave. Dmitri is Gustave’s polar opposite, a brutish, foul-mouthed aristocrat with a fetish for black trench coats. Jopling, meanwhile, is a foil to Zero. He’s almost like Frankenstein’s monster: a mindless and violent brute that will do anything Dimitri tells him to. It’s a lucky thing Anderson has a way of toning down his movies for younger audiences (ever notice The Fantastic Mr. Fox is more or less Breaking Bad?), or Jopling alone could have turned this into an R rated film.
Anderson has found quite the cast for this film. Aside from the main cast, Anderson studs his roster with the likes of Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, and Jude Law. But while this certainly makes the film more entertaining (and profitable, judging by how much advertising focus has been given to the bit-roles of Murray and Wilson), it doesn’t make up for the two-dimensionality of some of Anderson’s characters. Again, Anderson is a storyteller, and it’s hard to take something out of a story and make it three-dimensional. The result is that we lack a real urgency from some of the cast, entertaining as they are. The exceptions to this are Ralph Fiennes, who brings drama and emotion to the almost overly-quirky Gustave, Norton, who has a way of being subtly perfect in his role as Inspector Henckels, and Brody, who is perfectly imposing as Dmitri.
But while some of the acting is lacking, Anderson does nail his bit as a designer. It’s no secret that he’s a lover of watercolors, pastels, miniature models, and everything else you might find it a child’s art kit. He paints Zubrowka perfectly. The costumes are tailored to each character, with some very clever color coding tacked on. The sets and lights are perfectly set to maximize color, and to radiate a certain golden nostalgia.
And indeed, nostalgia is laced throughout this film, especially in the character of Gustave, who takes to spontaneously reciting and composing romantic poetry, has a taste for impressionism art, and wears only the finest of fashions. The hotel itself, and the title of the film, is a reference to Hotel Gellert, Budapest’s oldest and most esteemed hotels. This film is an ode to pre-World War Europe, before war and bloodshed stripped away the romance, royalty, and luxury of the continent. Throughout the film, characters hint at an oncoming war that could destroy the hotel and the way of life that so many of the film’s characters enjoy. And, quite noticeably, while Gustave and his employees, as well as most of the films characters, wear bright, noble colors and the finest coats, the soldiers of the film are dressed plainly in grey or black, symbolizing, perhaps, a mix of progress and destruction. The film is one of romance- between Zero and Anita, between Gustave and his lovers, and between the two main protagonists. As the film flashes back to the author and his time, we will see that romance disappear.
Anderson’s films might be storybooks on the surface, but beneath the spectacle and wonder is something very honest, very emotional, and sometimes even sinister. The Grand Budapest Hotel exemplifies this. It might dress like a fairytale, but this is a story of murder, regret, isolation, and lost love. And for all its flaws, it’s a darn good story.