Wes Anderson is a director who gets compared to Tim Burton, although I think that comparison is mostly superficial. They both have distinct, instantly recognizable styles, that can be mistaken for self repetition when read entirely on a surface level. One of the main differences, from my eyes, is that Tim Burton is more talented but Wes Anderson is more stable, so while Anderson has never made anything as great as Ed Wood, he’s also never made anything as horrifying as Alice in Wonderland.
That isn’t to say Anderson hasn’t made some great films. The Royal Tenenbaums is justified in its reputation as a classic, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a fantastically unique animated film that flat out kicks the ass of most Disney and Pixar movies and his previous film, Moonrise Kingdom rose to number 2 on my top 10 films of 2012 (a year that included Cloud Atlas, The Master, Cabin in the Woods, Zero Dark Thirty…) I’m not certain if The Grand Budapest Hotel is as good as Tenenbaums or Moonrise, but taken on it’s own merits, it’s a worthy entry in his career and easily the best film I’ve seen in 2014 thus far.
The film, which contains no less than 3 different framing devices (only one of which is important in any way besides thematically) is technically devoted to Zero (Tony Revolor), a young bellboy working at the hotel of title in the fictional country of Zubrowka. But in a very real way, the actual lead is Gustave (Ralph Finnes), a charming and somewhat foppish concierge, who takes Zero under his wing. Gustave spends his time running the hotel and sleeping with the elderly female patrons, the most notable is Madame D (Tilda Swinton under heavy makeup). After one meeting with her, she is murdered right after bequeathing a priceless painting to Gustave. Gustave and Zero abscond with the painting, but Gustave is accused of her murder and arrested. And that’s all I can say about the plot without spoiling it’s entertaining twists and turns.
If you’ve seen a Wes Anderson film before, then you’re probably familiar with what to expect from his direction; Long takes, single shots, a bright color pallet, a certain level of intentional unreality from the sets, the juxtaposition of whimsical settings with broken and depressed characters etc. etc. All of that is in full force here but it still looks great, with an added emphasis on blue and white in this movie. It also differs heavily in the story, as there seems to be an increased element of darkness and cynicism. References are made regularly to an approaching war, which seems to thematically represent the end of the kind of childlike innocence that characterizes much of Anderson’s work. This injects the entire film, but especially the third act and the framing devices, with an air of melancholy, as even the characters seem to realize that the special magic that Anderson infuses into his films is coming to an end and are battling each other over because they have no idea what else to do.
The actors all put in top form work, with most of Anderson’s production posse in secondary roles or cameos, but the film unquestionably belongs to to Ralph Finnes. It’s an odd use of Finnes, best known for playing the psychotic Nazi in Schindler’s List to have him playing a polite and somewhat camp concierge but it works startlingly well. Revolor is a little flatter, but that also works, as he rarely appears on screen without Finnes and is basically playing the straight man to Finnes’ more over the top performance. Of the quite frankly huge supporting case, the one who makes the most impact is oddly enough Willem Defoe as the nearly silent enforcer for Adrian Brody’s Dmitri, Madame D’s son.
And on that note, the movie’s choice to not have any of the actors try for a single accent (even within a family; Tilda Swinton uses her British accent, whereas Adrian Brody uses his natural American) never stops being oddly entertaining. While most of the supporting cast is solid, the only other one I think is truly worth discussing is Saoirse Ronan as Agatha, Zero’s love interest. She’s introduced with the narrator stating that he doesn’t like to talk about her (cryptically stating it makes him too emotional) and as a result she drifts in and out of the story like a ghost and is given precious few lines of dialogue. But she uses them all well and it becomes clear by the end of the film that she is the third lead of the story, a neat trick of the movie’s excellent screenplay and in Ronan’s odd performance.
If I have to level a complaint (aside from the usual one; If you have little patience for Anderson’s style then I don’t think you’ll appreciate a movie with a secret society of concierges and a literal plot point being that cakes are being used to smuggle things into prison because they’re too beautiful for the guards to destroy by searching) it’s that the cast might be a tiny bit too big. The posters have been selling the absolutely huge cast, and the problem becomes that we don’t get to spend enough time with some supporting characters, like Jeff Goldblum as the executor of Madame D’s estate, or Billy Murray as a member of the aforementioned Secret Society. Still, that’s a minor issue and when your biggest complaint about a movie basically boils down to ‘I want more of it’ it’s probably a good movie.
At the end of this review, I don’t know if this movie is the equal to Moonrise Kingdom, but on the other hand I don’t know if it has to be. Moonrise came out at the beginning of a year that already had some great and memorable movies in the early months; Chronicle, The Grey, Cabin in the Woods…the best thing this year has going for it so far is The Lego Movie. So while it might not be the best Wes Anderson movie, it’s a damned good Wes Anderson movie, and probably the best thing in theaters right now. And really, isn’t that enough?
Elessar is a 24 year old Alaskan born cinephile and the hotel doesn’t seem to actually have anything to do with Budapest.
– beautifully shot and directed
– great screenplay
– superb acting
– ending might take too long
– large cast leaves some characters spread a little thin