As proven by all of his previous films, Wes Anderson understands comedy, drama, music, writing, and structure. He’s been lauded as having an original voice for comedy and drama, but one thing he doesn’t get enough credit for? His action chops. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and his newest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, all have their share of action, and each one of their set pieces are wonderful. They came in small doses usually, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is a full on action thriller, completely done with Anderson’s sensibilities. And an action movie from Wes Anderson is as delightful, and as busy, as it sounds.
The film jumps around a few different moments in time, but it’s mainly set in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka during the 1920s. Zubrowka is the home of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a lavish establishment visited by old ladies who come solely for Monsieur Gustave H.’s (Ralph Fiennes) companionship. Gustave is the smoothest hotel concierge in all of Europe, and it’s easy to see why: he’s charming, he treats his clientele with the utmost respect, and, at least in some cases, he genuinely loves his guests.
One of his most beloved is Madame D., a woman in her 80s who’s at her liveliest when she’s with Gustave. Soon after her visit she’s murdered, and Gustave is the #1 suspect in the case. Chased by Madame D’s son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), his ruthless sidekick Jopling (Willem Dafoe), and fascists led by a typecast Edward Norton, Gustave is forced to prove his innocence with the help of his lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori).
That breakdown hardly covers all the bases. Anderson’s script is his most plot-driven one yet. He wastes no time from the start, and sadly, it does create some trouble for the film. Some of these characters are more defined by their costumes than their personalities. The most disappointing example of this is Agatha (Saorise Ronan), who is generally more of a plot point than a character. Her involvement is structurally important, but as a person, she’s rarely ever defined beyond Zero having great love for her, a love which we never see originate or grow. When a much older Zero (F. Murray Abraham) reflects back on Agatha, it doesn’t have nearly the emotional weight that’s intended.
Thematically, structurally, and visually, Anderson’s movie is dense, but emotionally it can be distancing. Since this is a crime caper, though, that’s slightly excusable because everything else about the film is immensely enjoyable. The picture’s energy is consistently on a high, with the richness of Anderson’s playful camerawork, gorgeous production design, and an ensemble of characters never facing a shortage of charisma. Gustave quickly joins the ranks of Anderson’s most quotable and lovable figures. He’s a compelling hero whose chivalry is what saves the day, and he rarely escapes situations by putting up his fists. There’s a seemingly redundant moment featuring soup and a prisoner with a scar that goes on to have lovely payoff, proving that sometimes kindness is more important than throwing punches. Gustave is holding onto a past time that thinks nobility should be the norm, not the exception.
Punches are thrown, in addition to murder, decapitation, stabbings, and shootouts — all of Anderson’s famous trademarks. This is the director’s most violent movie yet, and even though it’s all done in service of a fun adventure, it poses a question about Anderson’s newest films: has he grown cynical? Perhaps cynical isn’t the right word, but there’s more sadness and edge to The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom than what we saw in his earlier work.
The kids in Moonrise Kingdom are possibly heading towards the lonely lives the adults are all facing, while The Grand Budapest Hotel shows how little time truly marvelous people and places sometimes have. Too often the world is unfair and cruel, and lately Anderson seems more invested in that moral than his usual bittersweet observations. His latest isn’t without its moments of joy, but at its core, it’s saddening.
This doesn’t mean this is a dour experience. Far from it, in fact. Each scene is front-loaded with jokes that almost always hit their mark. The movie may suffer from some of its quick-and-done plotting, but its quality of humor, spectacle, and acting is all top notch.
The Upside: Sharply comedic; a marvel on the eyes; everything about Monsieur Gustave H.; set pieces that top major blockbusters; briskly paced
The Downside: That brisk pacing frequently rushes the film; needs more Agatha and Madame D.; doesn’t have the emotional impact it should
On The Side: The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson’s first film without a co-writer (Hugo Guinness has a story credit).