I suspect that the movies of Wes Anderson are fast becoming an institution, much like The Simpsons or Saturday Night Live. Actors from around the world want to work with him. He has his trusty band of collaborators — the Wilson brothers, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, the invaluable Bill Murray — and yet the size of his cast increases exponentially with each film. His latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, has about enough celebrities to make up two opposing all-star soccer teams.
The brilliance of Anderson’s screenplay is in the way he finds a comfortable spot for each of his players. The cast is large, the characters are many, and yet no one feels out of place. Everyone has a purpose, and everyone knows this purpose. Even Murray, who drops in and out of the story like a yoyo, decorates his performance with a lightness of spirit. The characters fill out the story and give it girth, instead of the story expanding on itself to accommodate the characters.
Here, let’s list the characters. The movie opens in 1985 with Tom Wilkinson playing an aged author. He speaks straight to the camera and narrates his own story from 1968, where he, as a young man (played by Jude Law), visits the famous Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictitious republic of Zubrowka up in the Alps. There he meets the hotel’s owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who visits every so often and always asks for the same room: A small, tucked away cleaner’s quarters. The hotel’s concierge is a nonchalant bum, played by Jason Schwartzman. At dinner that night, Moustafa regales The Author with tales of the hotel in 1932, where he, now as a young boy played by newcomer Tony Revolori, meets the then concierge, Mr. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).
Gustave has a way with customer service and ladies 80 and up — “She was a dynamite in the sack”, he says. “She was 84”, Zero replies, stunned. “Meh, I’ve had older”. He is the handsomer, more charming, and probably more virile version of Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock from The Producers. One of his wealthy muses, Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Tilda Swinton), bids him and the hotel farewell, and dies shortly after under mysterious circumstances. At the will hearing, held in her palatial mansion by attorney Vilmos Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and his enforcer Jopling (Willem Dafoe in disgustingly impeccable form) throw a childish fit after Gustave is bestowed Céline’s priceless painting, “Boy With Apple”. The mansion’s two helpers, Clotilde (Léa Seydoux) and Serge X (Mathieu Amalric), assist Gustave in acquiring the painting and inform him that a more sinister game is afoot. Leaving a few out, that’s already 10 characters played by 12 actors.
It’s about this time that the story picks up momentum. The first half an hour or so is dedicated to introductions, colours and style. Anderson presents his magical made-up world in a series of tracks and pans that reveal a lot of reds, pinks and whites. Characters and lines of dialogue zip by and back again before the audience has even had a chance to realise the moustache on Fiennes’ face.
Visually, The Grand Budapest Hotel looks like a sweet strawberry cake, iced with red frosting and topped with hotel mini-figures. I could almost taste it, sitting somewhere between the middle and the back of the theatre, off to the side. Beside me sat an Asian couple. I doubt they understood much English, or much of Anderson’s humour, because they laughed more at the slapstick trailer of Adam Sandler’s new movie Blended than at the whole of Budapest put together. Everything happens so quickly in this film, and Anderson has a cunning way of making his comedy seem like drama. Indeed, sometimes you’re unsure whether to laugh or gasp. At the wake of Madame Céline, Gustave sits by her coffin, cradles her hand and says, “You’re looking so well darling, you really are. I don’t know what sort of cream they put on you down at the morgue, but I want some.”
You go into a Wes Anderson picture expecting a certain fantasy to wash over you. He’s been honing this illusion ever since his breakthrough film, Rushmore. I have yet to see all his movies, but the ones I have seen carry the same sort of magic. Usually it’d be a stretch to say what I’m about to say, but with Anderson, I believe it is true: You will not find movies like his elsewhere. And if you do, you will know instantly that you are looking at a fake. A copy perhaps. Less beautiful, less innovative, less absurd. The Grand Budapest Hotel is slick and polished, quick on the uptake, smart and very attractive, but also very silly. And maybe that’s all that Asian couple took away from it. Its silliness.
Best Moment | Too many to name. The confessional booth scene (and the scene that leads up to it). The chase scene through the alps. Gustave’s escape from prison. You name it.
Worst Moment | Nope.