This might just be Wes Anderson’s best film; it’s certainly his most thrilling. The cult director has bolstered the whimsical humor and trademark character studies with a raucous crime caper in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and it’s a riot.
Set in the fictional European land of Zubrowka shortly before the Second World War, a delightful cast of characters battle it out over a disputed will and a stolen oil painting as a horde of pseudo-Nazis scour the mountains in search of fugitives.
It is fast-paced and funny, but it’s also a compelling exploration of storytelling. As the narrative unfolds through a series of flashbacks, we see the way great stories are passed through the generations while the physical world fades and crumbles.
At the center of the movie is the Grand Budapest Hotel, in its heyday one of Europe’s great establishments. It is brought to life in vivid colors and a series of head-spinning set pieces filmed in the small German town of Gorlitz.
Ralph Fiennes plays M. Gustave, the Grand Budapest’s conductor and one of the hotel industry’s finest concierges—even if he does say so himself. Described as “the most liberally perfumed man I’ve ever encountered,” he is suave and knowledgeable but also desperately flawed. Constantly spraying on more of his L’air de Panache and paying a little too much attention to the older female guests, he claims his only worthwhile possession is a set of ivory hairbrushes.
Fiennes excels as his fearsome and persnickety character trains up a new lobby boy who becomes a cherished protégé and partner in crime. Their life-and-death escapades are filmed in a glorious tongue-in-cheek style reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ comic action sequences—sometimes they even evoke the stop-motion animation of Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Willem Dafoe is disturbing and funny as the deadly enforcer to Adrien Brody’s simpering baddie. With terrible teeth, a full fist of vast signet rings and trousers that are far too short, Dafoe makes one of the great henchman, complete with a stiff black leather coat that is destined to become a classic.
This being a Wes Anderson movie, every member of the ensemble cast's style is imbued with enough depth to inspire a wry-smile or a laugh. In fact, this is pretty much the same ensemble cast Anderson always uses but with even more talent this time, adding Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, and Jude Law to the usual roster of Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman.
Tilda Swinton makes a spectacular attempt to steal the show as an 84-year-old dowager who falls in love with Fiennes’s concierge. Ed Norton, another Wes Anderson alumnus, is wonderfully campy as a commander in the ZZ, which stands for zig-zag in Zubrowka rather than Nazi Germany’s Schutzstaffel.
The entire fantastical caper begins with Tom Wilkinson, playing the author of a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel, who claims the best stories are not dreamed up in the heads of authors. He looks into the camera and explains: “Once the public knows you’re a writer they bring the characters and the stories to you.”
Anderson rewinds a generation, and we find the writer as a young man, staying at the near deserted Grand Hotel Budapest decades after its illustrious peak. It is here that he is regaled with the tale we are about to watch unfold. The aging hotel owner orders a lavish meal for the writer, and explains: “That should provide us ample time, if I commence promptly.”
The conceit allows Anderson to muse on the question of storytelling—and movie-making—which he previously delved into with the campfire stories read aloud in Moonrise Kingdom. Come for the exploration of narrative form—stay for the hilarious romp.