Some filmmakers are able to cultivate a style so specific that their very name becomes the only suitable way to describe it. Trying to obliquely explain the expected sweep of a Tim Burton movie inevitably means dredging through mouthfuls like “Brechtian artifice,” “suburban neo-gothic,” “the whimsical macabre” or unpacking the nesting doll of references to EC Comics, Hammer Films, Edward Gorey, Charles Addams, Roger Corman and Ub Iwerks. Or you can just say “Tim Burton” and everyone from Kalamazoo to Kenya will know exactly what you mean.
The modern (post-1970s) film scene is lousy with such figures, and has been ever since Steven Spielberg started getting his name above the titles and ushered in the age of the Superstar Director – a distinction that not long before had been held by Alfred Hitchcock and almost nobody else. The roster can be rattled off almost by reflex: Burton, The Coens, DePalma, Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Baz Luhrman, Terry Gilliam, Michael Bay…
And then there’s Wes Anderson. He’s a director whose cinematic style is tied to his own jaunty, paleo-hipster persona. I sometimes think he resembles a time-traveler who leapt exactly five years into the future, hated it, and immediate came back to bask in a kind of now-stalgia. It seems beside the point to still note that he could easily be a character in one of his own films… save that his characters tend to be broken, awful people while Anderson is by most accounts a decent fellow as “movie people go.” Is he an artist willingly at one with his vision, or has the vision simply consumed the man?
Or, alternately, is he just a grown man getting paid to play Colorforms with live-actors and million-dollar production budgets? Because that works, too.
Gentility and brutality are Anderson’s dichotomous stock in trade; an aesthetic that, unless it outright repels you, can’t help but infect your headspace until you’re blubbering out purple prose like “Gentility and brutality are Anderson’s dichotomous stock in trade.” He conjures worlds that feel (and, in Fantastic Mr. Fox simply were) delicately assembled from balsa wood, construction paper and expensive French dollhouse figurines but populates them with unctuous, morally-wretched adults and the outwardly-numb/inwardly-seething children who suffer under them.
For years, I’ve tried to find the proper way to describe the atmosphere of his work – of the Wes Anderson dimension that his films all seem to take place in – and only recently did a suitable mental image come into focus: His films feel like they might be set in the same universe as the Muppet Movies… if the Muppets themselves had all been raptured away decades prior; leaving only their human co-stars to meander, glum and without purpose, through the ruins of whimsy. Ruins of Whimsy might well be an alternate title for his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, a movie where characters good, evil and indifferent all seem equally sad and lost; fighting each other because they’re unable to fight entropy.
Also, Jeff Goldblum is in it. So there’s that.
Per the title, the film’s narrative centers around its namesake hotel – not actually located in or having any tangible relation to Budapest. Perched atop a mountain in the fictitious Eastern European nation of Zubrowka and designed with vaguely-appropriative “Orientalist” affect, it’s a hermetically-sealed, self-sustaining interior world, at once impressive and unavoidably tacky; and for a moment it’s easy to imagine (with no small amount of snark) that Anderson may have finally worked out the perfect setting for his meticulously-ordered, stagebound sensibilities… until they prove rather too ambitious to be contained even here. Instead, the vision spreads out into a created-universe all its own, reaching across geography and also through the borders of time.
In the present day, a young girl arrives at the grave of an author (Tom Wilkinson) clutching a copy of his book (yellowing cellophane library dust-cover still affixed, because Wes Anderson) about The Grand Budapest. She also has a mysterious hotel key to add to a collection of others hung, shrine-like, on the late author’s monument. In the 1960s, the author’s younger self (Jude Law) is a guest at the dreary remains of the once-beautiful GBH, where he chances to encounter the establishment’s eccentric billionaire owner Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham,) who offers to share the story of how he came to own the hotel and why he still clings to it after all these years.
It seems an odd way to get to our main story, that of newcomer Tony Revolori as the teenaged Zero (a postwar Middle Eastern refugee who finagles his way into a lobby boy job at The Grand Budapest in 1932), but it sneakily adds the necessary weighty undercurrents to the lighter early scenes of what is, after all, a comedy. However amusing the goings on may be, we already know that whatever ultimately happened here was meaningful enough that people treat its second-hand chronicler’s grave as a shrine.
In any case, Zero the Lobby Boy becomes the confidant, apprentice and friend of the GBH’s enigmatic, supremely-efficient manager M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, finally back in the kind of comedy role everyone forgets he’s great at.) In addition to the running of the hotel, Gustave is paramour-in-waiting to a bevy of wealthy aged widows who populate the regular clientele. When one of them (Tilda Swinton in incredible old-age makeup) dies under mysterious circumstances and surprisingly leaves Gustave a famously valuable painting in her will, her wickedly evil son (Adrien Brody) and his vile personal enforcer (Willem Dafoe) frame and jail him for the murder – sticking young Zero with a hotel to run by proxy, and a mystery to solve. Schemes, fights, shootouts, jailbreaks, chases (or rather the Wes Anderson versions thereof) and even a ski-pursuit battle on a mountain ensue. As do unmistakably Andersonian flourishes like an honor-bound secret society of Hotel Managers (because of course there would be!) and bakery pastries so beautifully constructed that prison inspectors can’t bring themselves to damage their construction by checking for smuggled contraband.
All the while, World War II intrudes personified by Edward Norton as a military captain whose men occupy The Grand Budapest but who stays his harsher hand out of a childhood debt to Gustave. The conflict creeps slowly but steadily over Zubrowka’s borders with unmistakably apocalyptic implications. Not only war, but also time, reality and adulthood will soon destroy Anderson’s immaculately-appointed dollhouse diorama of a universe. Anderson’s heroes, however, will fight with surprising ferocity for whatever moments in the sun they can salvage. Above all else, The Grand Budapest Hotel is about the futility, but also the nobility, of those who strive to create and protect their own realities, whether it’s Zero penciling on his mustache in the morning or Gustave burying his vague but unmistakable working-class origins under a parody of sophistication.
And flitting through the narrative like a ghost (or, maybe, more like an angel) is Saoirse Ronan as Agatha, teenaged Zero’s love interest and really the third co-lead of the story. She has very few lines (Zero and Agatha both sport the nervous, clipped affect and speech-through-stolen-glances behavior of most Wes Anderson child characters) but her all-importance is never for a moment in doubt. It’s a conceit of the film that when Old Zero says some aspect of his story is too painful (or unknown to him) to be told, the film (mostly) obliges him; so we’re given to understand that despite the enormity and gravity of his adventures with Gustave, she is the real story of Zero’s life, and of The Grand Budapest as well.
I don’t know if this is the film that will “sell” you on Wes Anderson if you’re not already on board, and I don’t know that it’s meant to be. The tonal/aesthetic mashup of 70s Disney production design, old-timey cartoon slapstick, grimy caper flick and peppy detective-story/treasure-hunt certainly isn’t immediately welcoming to newcomers. And I can’t imagine that even a majority of cineaste’s will take as much pleasure in the time-shifting aspect-ratios (i.e. the shape and scope of the film stock changes depending on the era of the story.) Plus, the deliberately phony-looking miniatures used for the exteriors of mountains, cities and The Grand Budapest itself…
And yet, the final reveal of what the story has been all about – namely, how did Zero become a billionaire and why does he now hold fast to this monument to the vanished world of his past – is held to the last possible moment and turns the proceedings into what could be Anderson’s most successful stab at unguarded drama since The Royal Tenenbaums. It doesn’t precisely redraw reality or provide some great surprise twist, but it’s the kind of emotional wallop that’s hard to make land amid such highly stylized trappings… if nothing else, you’ll understand why that girl came to the graveyard.