If you're at all intrigued by The Grand Budapest Hotel, please don't wait until it comes out on video to see it. While the stories and the performances should work just as well in any format, the film offers visual treats I believe will be best appreciated on the big screen. Besides, a creation this engaging, funny, melancholic and agreeably odd deserves to be seen now.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is the eighth feature film by writer-director Wes Anderson, who also made Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson has a unique approach to film-making, most immediately noticeable in the production design and cinematography.
Each image is carefully framed, with characters or prominent objects placed smack in the center of the scene. I've compared his imagery to pop-up books, dioramas, dollhouses, puppet shows and ornate pastries. The presentation style is formal with occasional (and often surprising) bursts of movement and/or rude behavior. The Grand Budapest Hotel features the work of cinematographer Robert Yeoman and production designer Adam Stockhausen. Good on them, as well as Alexandre Desplat, who provides the fine score.
Within the precise trappings, Anderson lets his imagination run wild. Inspired by the work of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, The Grand Budapest Hotel features stories within stories without becoming confusing. Each story gets its own look and a screen shape (aspect ratio) appropriate to its time period. Nifty.
The central tale takes place in the Republic of Zubrowka in 1932, at the resort-spa referred to in the title. The golden age between the world wars is nearing its end. Currently, the hotel thrives in large part due to the efforts of concierge M. Gustave, played wonderfully by Ralph Fiennes. Gustave speaks formally and melodically, except for those moments when he abruptly growls or curses. His presentation style is florid, he calls most men "darling." Gustave also beds many of the older female guests.
Gustave is ably assisted by a young lobby boy named Zero Moustafa, played with deadpan enthusiasm by Tony Revolori. Gustave and Zero make a delightful screen team.
All hell breaks loose when one of Gustave's lady friends, the ancient Madame D. (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton) dies, setting off an ugly competition for her property and a murder investigation. Gustave is drawn into the madness — she left him a valuable painting that is emotionally significant — and he must deal with her threatening son (Adrien Brody), his ultra-violent enforcer (Willem Dafoe), a well-spoken military policeman (Edward Norton), an escape-bound convict (Harvey Keitel) and the leader of the Society of the Crossed Keys (Bill Murray, making the most of his brief time onscreen).
The cast also includes F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tom Wilkinson and Owen Wilson. Whew.
The Grand Budapest Hotel does all of the good things you'd expect from a Wes Anderson film, but there's something more going on. Aided immeasurably by Ralph Fiennes exceptional performance, the fanciful trappings and shifting spotlights somehow seem more genuine than the real world. Anderson doesn't just take viewers through the looking glass, he shows us the depth within it.