Wes Anderson is one goofy, talented, eccentric director with a legion of devoted fans who love just about everything he does. I'm a fan of Anderson's films, but I don't love them. His humor can be too off the wall, his humor too subtle at times. Well, then there's 2014's The Grand Budapest Hotel, a hysterically dark, truly off the wall flick that Anderson fans will no doubt appreciate.
It's 1932 in the Republic of Zubrowka, and the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), has taken a protege under his wing, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), a talented refugee working as one of the hotel's Lobby Boys. Zero is fascinated by everything about Gustave from his gentlemanly ways to his knowledge of anything and everything, especially his "relationships" with rich, older women who visit the hotel to specifically see him. When one of his favorite guests, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), dies mysteriously, Gustave and Zero rush to her countryside villa to be there for the funeral. They're both stunned when they find out that Madame left almost everything in her will to Gustave, including one lucrative painting. The rest of the family is less than pleased and just a day later, Gustave is arrested for the murder of Madame D. With help from loyal Zero, can he escape jail and prove his innocence?
If there was ever a movie where a story/plot description could be misleading, this is it. Yes, the story is key with its twisting and turning reveals, its countless characters, its flashbacks within flashbacks. But as anyone who's seen a Wes Anderson movie, it is also far more than that. His movies are never just stories, using the screenplays as a huge jumping off point into a stylishly visual movie that basically defies description. With an Anderson flick -- when it works -- you can just sit back and let it wash over you. Very much qualifying in that department, 'Budapest' succeeds on a stylistic level on its own. The visual is stunning at times. Anderson uses his familiar shooting technique, the camera shooting much of the action as if it was a stage play. It's more than that though. The camera and all its movements become a secondary character.
Some of these shots make the movie feel like a throwback to the days of pre-computer special effects. I imagine Anderson used some CGI at different points, but he never really relies on it. The pure variety of shots 'Budapest' uses is impressive in itself. Our first introduction to the hotel and its surrounding areas is done via miniatures, a little set built up that looks like a dollhouse. From there, the tone is set. Just about every scene looks like a painting painstakingly crafted by an artist full of bright, vivid, Earthy colors. Anderson films with his cast, close-ups as they ride a motorcycle, as they race down a mountain on a sled. It's clearly an effect but it appears almost effortless in execution. The closest, best description I can come up -- and I intend it as a compliment -- is that 'Budapest' looks and plays like a children's picture book, the story bouncing from page to page with almost reckless abandon. Style to burn, an essential element to Anderson's formula for success.
The extreme depth of the cast here shows what a director Anderson must be, one who actors and actresses desperately desire to work with. He has his fair of regulars who show up here, but this is a movie that belongs to Ralph Fiennes. Working with Anderson for the first time, Fiennes is an epically successful scene-stealer. It's a part that's hard to qualify because it works on so many levels. There's a rhythm to the dialogue that Fiennes takes to easily, his delivery rarely varying no matter who he's addressing. It's more than that too, Fiennes committing physically with some great visuals, a pitter-patter to the on-screen movements. His running style especially cracked me up, including one scene where he's confronted about the murder of Madame D. Gustave runs away, but he runs as a gentleman under control, not a man running for his life. There's too many funny scenes to mention, but almost all of them work. This is most definitely a character though, a gentleman who is vain, loves older women because they've gained life experience (among other things), full of pride, a strong boss, a loyal friend. We pick up all these little things that just work so well.
This performance comes through best in the scenes between Gustave and young Revolori as Zero, the Lobby Boy refugee who's lived on his own for years. Not quite father-son, not quite a brotherly relationship, it's somewhere in between, the protege and his mentor. The duo brings the screenplay to life from the drama to the laughs, the physical, almost screwball comedy to the international chases. I loved both characters, even the quasi-rivalry that develops when Zero meets a beautiful young baker, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), who Gustave is enchanted with as well. Just a great chemistry, a great one-two punch that carries the movie throughout.
Brace yourself for the rest of the cast. It is a doozy. In a framing device, Tom Wilkinson plays the author of a book about the hotel, Jude Law playing his younger representation, interviewing an older Zero, played by F. Murray Abraham. Because part of the fun is stumbling across the stars on-hand here, I won't go into a ton of detail as to their background or who they are. But just to list them is pretty crazy in itself so pull up a chair and get comfy. Some appearances are no more than a scene or two, but they're there just the same. There's Adrien Brody, Mathieu Amalric, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Bob Balaban, among others who will no doubt catch your eye. If that cast doesn't do something for you, maybe movies aren't your thing.
As I've learned with other Anderson movies, these simply aren't for everyone. The humor is either something you go along with or just don't. 'Budapest' covers a ton of ground in its 100-minute running time, scenes transitioning with a stylish title card, Alexandre Desplat's effortless score pushing the story along, sight gags galore dotting the road. If you like it, I think you'll love it. Just a goofy kind of perfect, vastly different and a step above just about everything else hitting theaters. Highly recommended.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): *** 1/2 /****