Wes Anderson isn’t our greatest living filmmaker; his style is too narrowly defined for such a grand title. We tend to think of our greatest directors as both having a signature style but also being flexible enough to tackle many styles: Howard Hawks could move from urbane comedies to Westerns and epics, Martin Scorsese from urban grit to musicals and children’s’ fantasias, and so on. By contrast Anderson has one style, and each of his films simply refine it. All those twee little trinkets and fussy outfits could drive you mad, were one to watch too many in a row. But as perfectly Andersonian a spectacle as The Grand Budapest Hotel is, it also expands his reach in surprising ways. Being one of the year’s most unique spectacles, it’s also the first Anderson film made up of tragedy as much as it is comedy.
The film starts in swift, storybook strokes. A writer (Jude Law), narrating in the faux-world weary style that Anderson has been perfecting since The Royal Tenenbaums, makes the acquaintance of the fascinating Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). They are both killing time in a decrepit old pile of a hotel in some Soviet satellite state where rust-orange is the dominant color and everything in sight sighs with malaise. Moustafa tells his story, and right away we’re hooked, because that’s when Ralph Fiennes makes his appearance.
The twinkle-eyed and roguish Fiennes plays M. Gustave, decades earlier the concierge of the titular hotel, located in the imagined “Republic of Zubrowka”, which was “once the seat of an empire” in the ‘30s. The shift is abrupt, from Euro-Shining haunt to faux-Thomas Mann decadence. The hotel, another Anderson playground as tightly packed with gadgets and sight gags as the submarine in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, is a grand edifice stuffed with high-hatting aristocrats and spring-heeled staff. It fairly thrums with Mitteleuropean tradition. Gustave is the self-appointed keeper of these rituals, regarding even the slightest slacking as an insult to humanity itself.
Our entry point to Gustave’s cloistered world at the Grand Budapest Hotel is Zero (Tony Revolori), the new lobby boy. Zero plays stone-faced straight man to Gustave’s tightly controlled zaniness. Fiennes’ whiplash timing and verbal machine-gunning are just a couple of this film’s nods to the Marx Brothers’ madcap adventures. Zero is also there to give witness to the hotel’s final glory days, and by extension, the end of a particular brand of European civilization.
The antic story that Anderson whipped up here is nearly beside the point, a means to an end. One of Gustave’s duties at the Grand Budapest (again, self-appointed, it would seem) was romancing the jewel-bedecked dowagers who populated its ornate rooms like parrots in a multi-tiered birdcage. (Gustave’s obvious homosexuality is no barrier; he would see such oversimplifications as provincial.) When the devoted Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, under a gallon or two of makeup) dies and leaves a famous painting to Gustave, her villainous son (Adrien Brody) and his neo-Nazi henchman (Willem Dafoe) come after Gustave. The many chase scenes that follow, including a downhill ski race and a comically inept shootout at the Grand Budapest, are pitched at a high farcical level that underscores the dark background while providing comic relief.
While Gustave and Zero scheme for survival, war is brewing. Gustave’s stiff elegance, habitual parlor flatteries (he tells the dead Madame D.: “I don’t know what sort of cream they put on you down at the morgue, but I want some”), and love of romantic poetry do not auger well for survival in the new world. It doesn’t take a detective to figure out what the black, ZZ-marked uniforms of the invading soldiers are meant to evoke, but Anderson places a Charlie Chaplin/Groucho Marx scrim between his story and the reality of Europe in the ’30s just thin enough to give the encroaching horror a more universal tone.
The Grand Budapest Hotel’s zippy sense of farce makes for a tightrope act, but Anderson executes it with aplomb. His ever-expanding company of players acquit themselves splendidly, even the cameos that barely last for an eye blink (Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Harvey Keitel). The twee overkill that hampered films like Moonrise Kingdom is almost nowhere to be seen here. Instead there’s a world-weariness that before was something of a put-on — see the too-much-too-young prodigies of The Royal Tenenbaums — but now feels earned. This is mostly due to Anderson placing his Stefan Zweig-inspired story in a place and time evoked not just by its period detail (exhaustive here, with an extra dash of beautiful whimsy) but also by its historical resonance. When Gustave exclaims about the “faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse once known as humanity,” it’s not just another joke at the expense of his purple prose; it’s a lament for all the devastation to come.
Like all great absurdist comedies, The Grand Budapest Hotel is ultimately a tragedy where the laughs signal doom as much as joy.