Once you come in and stay a while, you may never want to leave the world of this delightful movie.
What is The Grand Budapest Hotel about? Is it about the mightily proper hotel concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) who is framed for murder? Or about the young lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) who first starts out as his apprentice and ends up his closest confidante?
Is it about Boy With Apple, the priceless painting bequeathed by a rich dowager to Gustave in her will? Or her sons, Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and Jopling (Willem Dafoe), who will stop at nothing to get it back? Or is it simply about the grand old hotel itself?
The answer to that question may depend entirely on who is doing the telling, as Wes Anderson’s story-within-a-story-within-a-story, like the particularly delicious gateau that pops up throughout the movie, is a complex confection of layers on top of layers.
Peopled with a sprawling cast of quirky characters, The Grand Budapest Hotel could be about any number of their stories, and while it tells a strong main narrative, also manages to draw you into all their what-ifs and could-bes.
The film begins with a girl reading a memoir by The Author, which takes us to him (Tom Wilkinson) talking about a trip he made to the titular hotel in the 1960s.
The Grand Budapest, once an illustrious establishment, is now past its prime. There The Author (now played by Jude Law) meets Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the hotel’s owner, who tells him the story of how he came to own the hotel.
Set in the fictitious country of Zubrowka, on the brink of war in the 1930s, the story revolves around Gustave, whose reputation as a concierge extraordinaire at the Grand Budapest precedes him, and whose taste in women leans towards the elderly, wealthy and blonde.
When one such paramour, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), is found dead in her home, her nefarious sons Dmitri and Jopling immediately accuse Gustave – particularly since she had left the aforementioned painting to him. Now, Gustave and Zero must uncover what really happened to Madame D. in order to clear Gustave’s name.
Those familiar with Anderson’s previous works like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited will instantly recognise his distinctive visual style and the delicate weaving together of humour and dark drama.
Yet, there is an expansiveness to Anderson’s work in The Grand Budapest Hotel – the exotic locales, the extended timeline, the riotous colours and the broad humour – that is both refreshing and infectious. In comparison to his most recent works, Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), both of which were lovely, quiet little affairs, this is a heady, hilariously absurdist caper of a movie.
In fact, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a non-stop entertainer, borrowing its aesthetic as much from Marx Brothers’ comedies and The Three Stooges as it does from noir – this may well be Anderson’s most laugh-out-loud funny movie since Rushmore (1998). And in keeping with the film’s MacGuffin, each scene is shot like a painting in vivid hues and incredible detail.
Anderson devotees will have a great time spotting familiar faces from his previous movies; these include Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, and of course, Bill Murray, who has been in every single one of Anderson’s films.
It is, however, first-time collaborator Fiennes who steals the show as the genteel, officious yet delightfully foul-mouthed Gustave, with his mastery of subtle expressions and impeccable comedic timing.
This deserves to go down as one of Fiennes’ best performances; after all, who knew the dramatic actor had such a flair for comedy? Sharing great chemistry with him is newcomer Revolori as the poker-faced Zero, the perfect foil to Fiennes’ theatricality.
Other standouts include Dafoe (who worked with Anderson in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou andFantastic Mr Fox), who exudes menace while barely saying a word, and Saoirse Ronan as Agatha, the love of Zero’s life.
Yet, like the jailbreak tools hidden within the pretty dessert (yes, this actually happens in the movie), a grimmer storyline is concealed within the madcap adventures, imaginative visuals and showy performances, one that is much closer to reality. The constant presence of the military and occasional glimpses of poverty serve as sobering reminders that while Zubrowka may be fictitious, its problems aren’t.
And then there’s the larger theme of impermanence that permeates the entire movie, from the ageing hotel to Gustave’s increasingly obsolete ways – The Grand Budapest Hotel is as much a love letter to the things we choose to remember and the stories we choose to tell as it is a reflection on the things we’ve lost along the way.