The only thing more legendary than the Grand Budapest Hotel's reputation for excellence is the man who holds the hotel to that standard, concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). The hotel is a palace that prides itself on a type of classiness that feels outre even in the early 1930s period during which Gustave's tenure took place, and Gustave himself is behind every last bit of it. Even while the hotel is surrounded by war and violence, his ideas of hospitality never waver, especially toward elderly female residents. One of the first-hand witnesses to Gustave's style is Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the establishment's newest lobby boy. Zero quickly becomes one of Gustave's most beloved pupils, a relationship which makes him an unexpected participant in a madcap adventure when Gustave is willed a priceless painting named "Boy With Apple" by one of his favorite guests (Tilda Swinton), and her son Dimitri (Adrien Brody) not only seeks to stop him from collecting, but accuses Gustave of murdering her.
Wes Anderson is one of the few directors working in Hollywood who has not only managed to make films tailored to his specific vision, but also, for the most part, managed to narrow his focus with each film rather than widen it. His first film, Bottle Rocket, was guided by James L. Brooks, producer of "The Simpsons"; Grand Budapest Hotel, on the other hand, is inspired by the work of an obscure Viennese playwright named Stefan Zweig. Although Budapest is so exhaustingly madcap the jokes can feel overly rehearsed, it's hard not to admire Anderson's dedication to realize his exacting vision. Much like the character of M. Gustave, Anderson's style here is exacting and precise, while also being something to behold. On a purely directorial level, it's the kind of stylistic leap forward few directors on their eighth feature can lay claim to.
Anyone who's seen Anderson's movies will be familiar with his love of warm pastel colors (in this case, pink and purple) and whip pans to carefully arranged imagery, but he's so comfortable with those touches in Budapest that most of them are done on the fly, as Gustave flies down a hallway, Zero in tow. Each of these familiar hallmarks is also amped up to eleven, covering not only the hotel but the entire world, which takes place in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. Simultaneously, Anderson incorporates new twists, including a shifting aspect ratio to differentiate the film's three time periods (which themselves are nested inside short bookends), as well as incorporating stop-motion animation into this live-action movie. The film frequently looks like a cartoon, with characters running along a flat horizon in tiny silhouette, inside the 1.33:1 frame of the 1930s. Furthermore, Anderson also tries his hand at different tonal notes, most noticeably in a startlingly effective suspense sequence that ends on a shocking note of horror.
That alone is a bunch to take in on a single viewing, but Anderson goes another step further with the dialogue, which is delivered machine gun style with only the briefest pauses in between sentences for breath. Anderson gives the viewer plenty of time to breathe with the occasional chase sequence, but when the characters are talking, each conversation is a monument ornate enough for the Grand Budapest itself. The entire ensemble cast is very good (save for a number of cameo appearances which are too brief to leave much of an impression), but Fiennes in particular relishes every word that comes out of Gustave's mouth, most of which temper his air of sophistication with an uncensored sidebar or two. He's a somewhat mannered force of nature, fully realizing the stature that Gustave represents within the story. Jeff Goldblum also makes an impressive comic impression despite few scenes as the lawyer representing Brody and his family.
My one reservation is in regards to Zero himself, who is surprisingly passive. He's got so little dialogue for the first half of the film that it feels like he's hardly in it, despite being at M. Gustave's side for most of the film's running time. In the one scene where Zero says something of significance back to M. Gustave, a comment about being a refugee, the relationship between the two characters suddenly feels warm and real, but the moment is fleeting. Zero's romance with a pretty cake girl named Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) is even more minimal, with so few scenes of the two actually bonding. Anderson is a master craftsman, fully able to create emotionally compelling characters and incredible visuals. The Grand Budapest Hotel has some of each, but it's a shame that it can't more consistently do both at the same time.
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