I watch a lot of movies, but it’s a pretty rare event when I go to a theater to see one–so rare that it happens maybe twice a year. My husband wanted to see The Grand Budapest Hotel, the latest effort by Wes Anderson, a director whose films we both adore. Neither of us had ever seen a Wes Anderson film in the theater before. The result was an absolutely delightful afternoon, one that brought back all the fun and charm that going to the movies used to have and so rarely does anymore.
Wes Anderson is an extreme rarity in the film world: he makes movies that deliberately emulate books. My all-time favorite film of his, the 2001 masterpiece The Royal Tenenbaums, begins in its opening shot with the opening of a book with that title and the stamping of it with an old-time library due date stamp; then the “book” is “handed” to the reader by a direct shove right into the camera. The Grand Budapest Hotel lacks this particular gimmick but the whole story is constructed like a whimsical and elegant storybook, with exterior shots of the title locale deliberately emulating book-like illustrations, and the narrative itself containing no less than three–yes, three–frame stories.
The first is extremely sketchy, and is about a young girl, evidently in the modern day, who is reading a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel by a character called “The Author” in a small square that contains a commemorative sculpture of this author. The square is located in some European city that may have formerly been part of the Communist bloc. Then suddenly we’re in 1985, when The Author (Tom Wilkinson) is writing The Grand Budapest Hotel, or at least trying to while fending off distractions from his unruly young son. The book The Grand Budapest Hotel itself involves a narrator (Jude Law) who, in the year 1968, is staying at the Grand Budapest Hotel, which we are told is located in the country of Zubrowka. The hotel is long past its prime and is now in decay. In the mud baths, which are almost deserted, the narrator crosses paths with the mysterious Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the rich man who owns the Grand Budapest Hotel and stays there part of the year evidently out of tradition. When the narrator asks Moustafa to explain how he came into possession of the hotel–and Moustafa agrees to tell him over dinner that evening–we’re finally into the real substance of the story.
The story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-story takes place in 1932, the heyday of the Grand Budapest Hotel and most of it concerns the hotel’s concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Gustave is an ace at his job and knows how to pamper guests, especially wealthy old ladies whom he sleeps with. Gustave has just taken on the youthful Zero Moustafa, who is about 14, as his lobby boy and is intent on teaching him how to be a truly great concierge. The intrigue begins when one of M. Gustave’s paramours (Tilda Swinton, heavily made up to look ancient) dies and may or may not have left him a priceless Old Masters painting called “Boy With Apple.” The old lady’s family, however, headed by the evil Dmitri (Adrien Brody) are none too keen on this, and the misadventures visited upon Gustave and young Moustafa lead them on a zany chain of adventures including a train chase and a prison break. Eventually we do find out how Moustafa got the hotel, but that’s incidental. We’re just along for the ride.
The Grand Budapest Hotel never breaks its storybook spell for a moment. Everything is brightly colored and beautiful, and the scenes shot in the 1930s are directly reminiscent of the glitzy look of Grand Hotel on which the style of this movie may have been based (but in color, of course). Ralph Fiennes gives a great comic performance as the concierge Gustave, and cameo after cameo–Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton–keep you on the edge of your seat wondering who will show up next. The film is unabashedly a whimsical fairy tale for adults. It’s not super smart, nor sexy, nor suspenseful, but it is a lot of fun.
I just love how the movie plays on the audience’s love of books, which is presumed rather than generated from within the story itself. Anderson assumes by walking into a movie like this that you must be a book lover. I have very rarely seen a passion for books portrayed convincingly on the screen, and The Grand Budapest Hotel plays on the theme not in an erudite way (i.e., love of books as a form of intelligence or learning) but in an emotional one (remember that one favorite book you had as a teenager that you read over and over again?) As a lover of books myself I think it’s terrific and refreshing to see this in a film.
This movie succeeds absolutely in what it sets out to do. It’s pure fun entertainment, a bit highbrow to be sure, but it’s just sheer delight from beginning to end. If you’re tired of loud Hollywood CGI epics or more comic book/superhero pictures, this is the one to see. It’s just terrific all the way around.