I’ve been trying to write a review of The Grand Budapest Hotel for over a month, but it’s given me an unusual amount of trouble. It has made me curious about what this very specific writer’s block means in terms of my opinion of the film. I certainly enjoyed it, as I’ve enjoyed all Wes Anderson films, but it seems like I just don’t have much to say about it. My overriding opinion from a review standpoint is that if you like Wes Anderson’s other movies, you’ll like The Grand Budapest Hotel, if you dislike them then you’ll want to skip it, and if you’re indifferent it’s worth checking out but probably not as worthy of attention as some of Anderson’s other works.
The Grand Budapest Hotel jumps time periods three times in the first five minutes of the film. It starts with a girl visiting a statue commemorating an author in the present day, to the 1980’s when that statue’s source (Tom Wilkinson) was still alive, to the 1960’s when that author (Jude Law) was younger and met the elderly inspiration for his book (F. Murray Abraham), and finally to that inspiration as a young man in 1932. The story revolves around Zero Moustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori), who finds work as a lobby boy at the titular hotel, under the tutelage of the hotel’s famous concierge, Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Gustave is the cream of the crop when it comes to the concierge industry, going out of his way to provide the high class experience that the hotel’s guests expect and making sure to provide top-notch “service” to many of the wealthy, older ladies who come to the hotel just for him.
One of these ladies (played by an almost unrecognizable Tilda Swinton) dies shortly after visiting Gustave one last time, and at the reading of her will it’s revealed that she left Gustave the priceless painting Boy with Apple, much to the chagrin of her son (played by Adrien Brody). Gustave, with Zero’s help, steals the painting and hides it at the hotel before he is framed for the old woman’s murder, leaving Zero to attempt to break him out of prison and the two of them to try to solve the mystery of her death. What follows is a complex, intricate, and funny tale involving hit men, ski chases, delicious pastries and a country on the brink of war. However, unlike some of Anderson’s other films, The Grand Budapest Hotel didn’t leave as much of an impression on me.
The story is a lot of fun, and the film has all of the trademarks of a Wes Anderson movie. It’s gorgeously crafted, with a unified vision that few other filmmakers can accomplish, from sets and costumes to camera angles and visual effects (the hotel is an elaborately constructed model, that is both obviously not a real hotel and simultaneously more interesting to look at than a real building). It features roles for many of his frequent collaborators, including Jeff Goldblum, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson and Bill Murray. It has that quirky, picture book quality that is hard to describe yet is a hallmark of the director’s other movies. It’s also more action packed and violent than his other movies, with a storytelling complexity that far outstrips anything else he has made. The Grand Budapest Hotel benefits greatly from its European setting, with some beautiful locations to go with its more whimsical creations. It also has an excellent score from Anderson’s frequent collaborator, Alexandre Desplat.
The performances are of the level you’d expect from actors of such high caliber. Ralph Fiennes steals the show as Gustave, equally smooth and bumbling, but always charming and the sort of man who “sleeps with all (his) friends.” Tony Revolori does a great job in his first big role, giving some heart to the film and providing a nice balance with the showy Gustave. The film is more of a straight-up comedy than Anderson’s last film, the brilliant Moonrise Kingdom, and as such it lacks the emotional pull of that masterpiece, although Saoirse Ronan gives the film some romance as Zero’s fiancé. The end result is a madcap, energetic tramp through 1932 Europe, filled with interesting characters and just a hint of melancholy and longing for days long gone.
Reviewing a Wes Anderson film is an odd exercise. On the one hand, it’s almost impossible to compare them to anything else, because they’re so different that they’re almost separate from everything else we routinely see. On the other hand, I feel a compulsion to measure each one against the other films in his body of work, which isn’t how a normal review would go either. I know people who can’t stand his movies, and despise their quirkiness and odd sensibilities, while other people like me adore his style and will follow him as long as he continues making movies. If you already have an opinion about Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel is unlikely to change it. If you’ve never seen one of his movies, it’s certainly an enjoyable way to spend two hours but I wouldn’t consider it the best introduction to the director. For me, it was a fun and funny romp that I was predisposed to like, but at the same time it’s not one that I see myself returning to over and over again, like I do with Moonrise Kingdom, Fantastic Mr. Fox or The Royal Tenenbaums.