Let me be frank. Since this was going to eventually come to light, I may as well admit I’ve only seen one Wes Anderson film. When I was tasked with the review for Anderson’s latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, I was anxious because Anderson movies are notorious/famous for their self referential humor and narrative. While I realized Budapest was essentially going to be the most referential out of all of his films, I almost backed out of this review completely.
I’m glad I didn’t because while I didn’t grasp every single reference, that’s not really needed. Whether or not you understand the source of every idea or decision, in a story that’s essentially all about storytelling and the storytellers themselves, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a riveting marvel of a film.
It’s something I want to see again, and again, and again.
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The Grand Budapest Hotel
Director: Wes Anderson
Release Date: March 7, 2014 (limited)
I’m sure you’ve heard this by now, but The Grand Budapest Hotel recently set a new box office record for grossing over $800,000 dollars releasing on only four screens. That’s insane. But you know what? It absolutely deserves it. Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, Budapest takes place at the titular hotel as Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) talks to a young writer (Jude Law) about how he came to own the now failing hotel and his young adventures with M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, a man who was falsely accused of murder and was sent to prison after he’s left with a famous painting from the victim’s will. The synopsis for the film does not do it justice as there are multiple complex layers of story to be told. First of all the entire film takes place within a novel, but as the film begins, the novel’s author (within the novel, mind you) begins telling the story after explaining that the world makes stories for writers.
The visual of that opening scene (the hotel itself is flat but slightly curves inward to a further in horizon line, creating a cone of vision) married with the new perspective (to keep a constant reminder that the film is a story, within a story, within a story) helps sinks you in further and further. It’s a refreshing change of pace to find that a film has enough confidence in you to follow along. It’s never once condescending, pandering, or insulting. It just exists as is, and the more you get invested in the adventure, the more you want the stories to sink into each other. And this is all before the film begins proper. Once it gets going, it really never stops being fabulous.
You’d figure a film so deftly packed with characters and famous Anderson actor cameos would be a recipe for disaster, but each person makes so much use of the little screen time they get. Thanks to impressive attention to detail, even when given a part with little dialogue, each character is a distinct personality. Whether they have a particularly crafted mustache (mustaches and beards are actually a big deal in Budapest, hilariously), birthmark in the shape of Mexico, or finely dressed in suits with the different colors of the rainbow. And it’s not just all visual. Each actor (even the ones with the bit scenes) gives their performance a distinct flair. Jason Schwartzman takes his small role as M. Jean and gives one of the best visual asides of the film (as you get used to every inch of frame being taken up by visual details, he parodically pops in a corner during a conversation. It’s much funnier than I’m describing it, trust me).
And that seems to be the name of the game. Take the little amount of time a moment gets (as stories flow into one another) and make sure it sticks. Not a single second of time is wasted, not a single millimeter of screen space is wasted. Everything is filled to the brim with information, humor, and darling visuals. Speaking of visuals, Budapest has a few stop motion animated asides (from his work on Fantastic Mr. Fox), and when we peer out into the landscape it’s all painted on an easel, there are cardboard cutouts juxtaposed with solid characters, and that’s just the beginning of a level of greatness that I can’t even put into words.
But the visuals would fall apart if they weren’t anchored to a great center. Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave is perfect. He’s sympathetic, has some of the best comedic timing, and turns a relatively goofy man (who has a collection of perfumes and sleeps with elderly women) into a great, fully fleshed out character. And it seems that the newest, young addition to the Anderson filmverse, Tony Revolori (as Zero, the Lobby Boy) has got a great future ahead of him if he can keep churning out strong performances like this. And of course, there’s still the analytical core of Budapest that bears more research.
You see, The Grand Budapest Hotel feels entirely reflective of the writer (Anderson) and his influence, Stefan Zweig. It’s almost as if Anderson wrote a film about his process of scriptwriting. M. Gustave seems like a physical representation of his feelings as there are several random screenwriter asides like when someone says “the plot thickens,” Gustave responds with “What does that even mean? Are we talking about soup?” And notably, when the film is about halfway through and threads upon threads of stories have been weaved, M. Gustave yells something along the lines of “F**k (Yes, that expletive is necessary)! I’ve had enough of all of this!” when someone began summarizing the entire story of the film in full. In that moment, both we and Gustave realize the ridiculous journey we’ve been on. Oh and not to mention the abrupt resolutions to plots that are just too hilarious to spoil here.
There are lots of little, naturalistic breakthroughs in the script too. While the setting, costume design, and majority of the dialogue exist within some sort of time bubble, there are refreshing bursts of current foul language. All of a sudden you hear Adrien Brody scream, “Blast your candy ass!” and it’s just ridiculous enough to not only briefly take you out of the moment, but bring you back in. There’s just so much more I want to mention about The Grand Budapest Hotel (Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe!), but I’m running out of space and time. If only I could exist within the Hotel too. A living, breathing entity with its own personality and grace.
I never once felt uncomfortable within my short stay at The Grand Budapest Hotel. My only problem with the film may be that while everything is packed to the brim with visual information, it does tend to be overwhelming at times. But that’s honestly a small thing. Even if you don’t catch everything in the background, what’s at the center is still enthralling. And if you felt compelled enough to watch again, all of the background information and loving details give you something to look forward to in subsequent viewings. With Budapest, there’s always something new to find during each stay. I’ve never been one to watch Wes Anderson films before, but this film has inspired me enough to make a run through his catalog.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film that can only exist thanks to years of effort, work, and experience. A stunning work of art.