THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL feels, in some ways, like Wes Anderson's final thesis. He certainly uses every trick and every single one of his familiar skills from his toolbox - the dioramic cinematography, the stop motion, the whip pans, and the whimsical score (this time from Alexandre Desplat). The script, by Anderson from a story by Anderson and Hugo Guinness, is full of precision and unexpected emotion. There's nothing so quietly devastating as Ben Stiller's "I've had a rough year, Dad," from THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, but that's not Wes Anderson's intention here, either. He's made a film so farcical and full of whimsy that Anderson may well be accused of self-parody at this point, but those accusers would be wrong. Instead, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is almost a mission statement, so gloriously optimistic the film is in the face of despair and grief. It's hopeful, hilarious, moving, and beautiful.
Like Walt Whitman, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL contains multitudes - it's a crime caper, a prison movie, a murder mystery, a comedy of errors, a love story, and even a character study. Sometimes it's all of these at once, and there are very few directors who could juggle this many themes and plot strands the way Anderson does here. The Russian doll structure of the story would on its face seem difficult to follow, but with ingenious use of aspect ratios (cinematographer Robert Yeoman does award worthy work here, shifting perspectives and going from 1.37:1 to 2.35:1 in a blink of an eye and making it all work aesthetically) THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is visually distinctive and easy to follow.
It also helps that he's cast Ralph Fiennes as the centerpiece of the story, and Fiennes dives into M. Gustave with relish. It's my favorite work he's ever done, and it goes right next to his performances in QUIZ SHOW and SCHINDLER'S LIST. If there was anyone I could compare Fiennes to in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, it would be the work Alec Guinness did with Ealing Studios. He's almost a chameleon, and he gets into the skin of Gustave, one of the most contradictory characters in the Wes Anderson pantheon.
As the Grand Budapest Hotel's head concierge, Gustave is both a vain man and a dignified one, a man who can be eloquent and poetic one moment and crude and base the next. We are first introduced to the Author of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (played by Tom Wilkinson), but the story truly begins with Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) as he tells his and Gustave's story to a young writer (Jude Law, billed as "Young Writer') who is staying at the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1963, which has seen better days. Zero, in his younger years (and played terrifically by Tony Revolori), was once Lobby Boy during the hotel's heyday in the 1930s, before war devastated the (fictional) country of Zubrowka. Gustave takes young Zero under his wing, and Zero falls in love with the young girl Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) who works for her father at Mendl's Confectionary across the street.
These were the pre-war days, when elegance and manners meant something, and Gustave fights the good fight against the brutalities of the world, in his own way. His hotel is a refuge from the cruel world outside, and if Gustave is a bit of a rake, seducing the older women who frequent his hotel for money, well, it can't be helped. The greater good is served, which is the hotel, and Gustave is proud of his labors there.
But one of Gustave's many romantic interests, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), passes away, and wills Gustave a priceless painting, "Boy With Apple." But Madame D's family will have none of it, and soon her son Dmitri (Adrian Brody) and his doglike henchman Jopling (Willem Defoe) plot to have Gustave put in prison - as it turns out, Madame D has been poisoned. Gustave, with the help of his young friend Zero, must set things right. He must clear his name, and get back to his beloved hotel. All the while, war is brewing, and even the splendor of the Grand Budapest Hotel will not be able to hold back the tide.
There's so many wonderful performances in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, and not just from Ralph Fiennes. Just look at the poster up there - actors from Bill Murray (the head of a mysterious organization called the Society of the Crossed Keys, which I won't spoil here), to Edward Norton as a young captain who respects Gustave even as he's chasing him down, to Harvey Keitel as a prison inmate with jailhouse tattoos that appear to have been drawn by first graders, to Jeff Goldblum as Kovacs, Madame D's family attorney who seems to only be able to speak in legalese (and he's just so damn... Goldblum in it. It's wonderful). It's an embarrassment of riches. Even almost cameos like Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman fill the movie with humor and class.
The plot's not exactly labyrinthine, but Wes Anderson's script and direction make everything clear and concise when it threatens to get too complicated. I feel like I need to see THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL again to get all the nuance. Throughout it all, the film is terrifically cinematic in scope, even when Anderson gets silly - silly in a good way - and gives us moments like a stop-motion skiing chase scene, or the most eccentric prison escape sequence in movie history. It's always entertaining.
This is Wes Anderson perhaps at his most playful, planting idea after idea and seeing if any take root. If there's anything wrong with the movie it's that there's nothing as emotionally rich in it like the angst and ennui of RUSHMORE - "I'll take punctuality" - or THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, which builds and builds to that one scene between Ben Stiller and Gene Hackman. It's a little too distant for that. But it's a minor complaint when it's obvious that Wes Anderson is thoroughly enjoying himself, and Ralph Fiennes plays Gustave with his own sense of dignity and propriety. Even when Gustave doesn't behave in the most moral of ways, his sense of civility remains steadfast in the face of a world increasingly crueler and more warlike.
For Gustave, rudeness is the greatest of sins - "It is the fear of someone who is afraid they will not get what they want" - and even throughout all of his and Zero's crazy adventures, he never forgets that. His dignity is his suit of armor and he wears it with immense pride. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is full of riches, much like opening one of Mendl's ribbon-tied boxes full of candy and happiness. It's one of Wes Anderson's best films, and one that celebrates imagination and those souls that rumble and fight against banality. Don't fuck with my play, indeed.