Since 1996, Wes Anderson has been creatively fit enough to give us a new feature film every few years, and every one of them has been excellent. With his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, the writer/director has made a story with equal parts weight and levity. It's a brutally hilarious script, plus the body count has never been higher. I have a particular fondness for severed heads, and (spoiler) this film has at least one.
The movie opens in what appears to be the 1980s, with a Margot Tenenbaum-like teenager worshipping the eponymously named fictional book. (Now would be a good time to dust off your Wes Anderson movie tropes bingo card.) Next we see the book's author in old age, played by Tom Wilkinson, who tells a documentary camera the story of himself as a young writer (Jude Law). The younger writer visits the still grand but somewhat decaying hotel in the 1960s. He meets the hotel's owner (F. Murray Abraham), who we learn was once the lobby boy. Now, over a decadent meal of duck and rabbit, the eccentric old man tells the story to the young author of the fake book that's been adapted into the movie we're watching. Does it really need to be a movie of a made-up novel inside an anecdote inside a documentary? Probably not, but it's easier to follow than it sounds.
Finally I get to tell you about the concierge M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes, and I'm delighted to do so because he might be one of Anderson's warmest and most likable characters to date. An exceedingly proper man, he takes care of the hotel with the touch of a meticulous mother. He micromanages everything, from the training of his staff to a bouquet of flowers buzzing past. "These are unacceptable," he says. In this fastidiousness, I think we're getting a glimpse of Anderson's personal aesthetic. He longs for a world filled with symmetrical framing, where everything and everyone is beautiful and interesting. Finding that lacking in real life, he consoles himself and us with highly stylized motion pictures.
Gustave has a penchant in particular for rich, blonde, elderly guests. He might seem like a gold digger until he says to one in particular, "I love you," and you know he's speaking an uncomplicated truth. Later he explains, "I go to bed with all my friends." Tilda Swinton plays the old woman who will wind up the dead subject of the novel's central murder/mystery. I didn't recognize her. It might be the best makeup work I've seen, although I can't help but quibble that it's a little unnecessary, what with real-life 84-year-olds existing all around us. I read that Angela Lansbury had the part at one point, which I would have preferred, but never mind.
A lobby boy named Zero has just been hired, played by a fine young actor named Tony Revolori. More than anything else, The Grand Budapest Hotel recounts the tender friendship that forms between Gustave and his tutelage. It's the early 1930s and Zero is so named because he's lost his entire family in the war, and there again is a bit of the serious undercurrent in what is mostly a fast-paced, jovial story.
I haven't even begun to tell you about M. Gustave's eventual incarceration. He's innocent of course, but try telling that to his money-hungry family, headed up by Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and his thuggish henchman (Willem Dafoe). Watch with rapt attention how Gustave manages to win over the tough guys in the prison cell. He gets in a fight with one as an initiation, and then calls his opponent "a dear friend."
There's a prison break, high speed chases down ski slopes, immigration fights on trains and tons of cameos from faces both familiar and new to the Anderson universe that I will leave you to discover yourself.
In a career of nothing but good movies, The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of Anderson's very best.
The Grand Budapest Hotel opens at the Wilma Fri., April 4.