There is often an element of storytelling in Wes Anderson’s films — The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox are both framed by the novels (one fictional, one real) they’re adapted from, and Suzie’s books in Moonrise Kingdom are like characters themselves. But the act of telling a story has never been as much the focus of his work as it is in his new picture, The Grand Budapest Hotel. His script (the first feature he’s written solo, though greatly influenced by the works of Stefan Zweig) drills down through several layers of storytellers: A girl reads a book, which is introduced by a writer (Tom Wilkinson), who recalls staying at the titular establishment as a younger man (Jude Law) and hearing the story of its past from the current owner (F. Murray Abraham), who worked there when he was a younger man (Tony Revolori). The dizzying array of older and younger versions become, in effect, stand-ins for passing generations, telling and retelling gossip and tall tales until they become legend.
The legend, in this case, is M. Gustave (played, magnificently, by Ralph Fiennes). He was the concierge of the Grand Budapest at the height of its fashion and elegance, in the early 1930s, and he watched over it “like a hawk with a horsewhip in its talons.” Fiennes strides through Anderson’s (of course) beautifully designed set like a ruler surveying his kingdom, snapping off orders to his staff and oozing compliments at the guests, and it’s a joy just to watch him work — “him” being both Gustave and Fiennes. Anderson has been writing ace ensembles so well for so long that we might’ve forgotten what he can create for a genuine lead; this is probably the first such role since Royal Tenenbaum, and every bit as juicy.
Anderson’s zippy, delightfully screwball plot concerns Madame D. (an extravagantly aged Tilda Swinton), an octogenarian guest and occasional lover to Gustave, who dies under mysterious circumstances and bequeaths an invaluable portrait to him. Her family is furious, particularly her no-good son (an entertainingly twitchy Adrian Brody), and they frame Gustave for murdering her, resulting in a cross-country chase, a daring prison escape, a manhunt, and several surprisingly grisly deaths.
In the unexpectedly savage degree of the violence, Anderson’s usually reliable command of tone momentarily fails him; this is an awfully mirthful package for such grim goings-on. And there is an argument to be made that while the picture’s busy energy is part of its charm, it occasionally comes off as rushed (it runs a mere 100 minutes, and could have easily gone much longer); terrific actors are relegated to mere cameos, with (for example) Bill Murray and Harvey Keitel getting off something like a half-dozen lines each. Anderson creates such a captivating, weird, and wonderful world that it might’ve served him to relax a little more, particularly early on, allowing us get to know his characters and the universe they inhabit.
But this is niggling. Grand Budapest Hotel is just plain fun, full of the filmmaker’s signature flourishes and curlicues, worked out with skill and finesse, with Alexandre Desplat’s bouncy, witty score providing extra snap. The elements of physical comedy are welcome and well executed (a round-robin of punches to the face and Gustave’s initial escape, above, are still making me laugh days after seeing them). Anderson never lets the picture get away from him, in spite of its giant cast and sprawling narrative; it’s got a charming sense of montage, and the deadpan simplicity of the special effects in the establishing shots lend a breezy, handmade feel.
Anderson switches between aspect ratios to help keep the timelines straight, and makes the unexpected choice of playing out most of the film in the square, 1.33:1 aspect ratio — appropriate to the period, yet leaving the filmmaker, prone to wide compositions, to work within a very tight frame. He seems to welcome that challenge, and the technique is ultimately less distracting than the trailers might have indicated. If we’re aware of the shifting edges of the frame, that’s okay; they remind us of the frames through which the story is told, and the prisms of those telling it.
With all the chases and escapes and even a shootout, Grand Budapest Hotel has been gleefully described as Anderson’s first action movie, and the picture’s blithe appropriation of those elements is one of its greatest pleasures; sure, there’s a shoot-out, but it’s a formal and polite affair, and the big, snowy chase scene feels less like Cliffhanger than Fantastic Mr. Fox. Yet for all of those snickering thrills, there’s an offhand melancholy that sneaks up on you — present in the events of the narrative, certainly, but in its themes as well. The aged hotelier shrugs, of the hotel’s drab and colorless 1960s incarnation, “Times have changed,” while granting, “I love it all just the same, this enchanted old ruin.” Later, he implies that Gustave was the same way, infatuated by an era, a way of seeing and living and being, that was already disappearing before he ever stepped foot through the Grand Budapest’s doors — much in the way that the worlds Anderson brings to life are themselves long gone. Yet Gustave chose to live in it anyway, his friend recalls, and “he certainly sustained that illusion with a marvelous grace.” Anderson gets a bum rap for being some kind of a distant creator of cinematic dollhouses, but in a line like that, you get a sense of how personal a grand, goofy film like this is.