Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, inspired by Stefan Zweig. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, and Jude Law. Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2014. Rated R for language, some sexual content, and violence. Running time: 100 minutes.

I don’t like filmmaker Wes Anderson’s cartoonish cinematography or his turgid prose. But I like his Grand Budapest Hotel anyway.

Although it is widely billed as a comedy, and although it does have many humorous moments, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a deeply tragic film whose main characters suffer great loss—and yet maintain their grasp on civilized values. In a time of oppressive injustice and war, they aim, as the lead character Monsieur Gustave puts it, to enjoy and preserve the “faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.”

Central to the film is the friendship between Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s perfectionist concierge, and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the hotel’s new lobby boy. Initially Gustave is underwhelmed by Zero’s credentials until he asks him why he wants the job. Zero replies, “Who wouldn’t want to work at the Grand Budapest Hotel? It’s an institution.” From then on Gustave joyously makes Zero his confidant and protégé, leaning on him when he needs to and standing up for him when he can.

In a better world, Gustave and Zero would have nurtured their friendship in the bustling hotel, Gustave would have grown old enjoying the pleasures of life, and Zero would have married his sweetheart in peace and lived with her happily ever after.

Instead, Gustave is framed for the murder of an older lover and sent to prison. Those who framed him are hell-bent on tying up loose ends—and they are not squeamish about blood. Zero seeks to help Gustave escape from prison, and he brings his girlfriend into the dangerous plot. Meanwhile, they all face dangers from brutal, capricious soldiers and from common diseases. I wish I could say that everything ends up perfectly for our protagonists—but, again, this film is a tragedy, not a comedy.

The shining star of the film is Fiennes as Gustave. His character normally is the distilled essence of civility, yet he is not above an occasional descent into vulgarity and even violence when it is called for. And Fiennes traverses this rich ground with grace, heart, and understated humor. Largely because of Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel successfully navigates between its surface comedy and its underlying horrors. His performance is amazing.

The rest of the cast features so many powerhouse actors that frankly all the talent is a little distracting: “Who’s coming next?,” I kept wondering. The cast features, among others, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Tom Wilkinson, and Owen Wilson. Many films do well to feature even one or two actors of such stature. Here everyone in the cast does a great job (although the mishmash of accents is a bit of a distraction).

Aside from Anderson’s peculiar cinematography and prose, my only other major complaint is that the storyline is sometimes so complex, with so many characters and twists, that it can be hard to follow. At one point I went several minutes confused about which person had been murdered.

Don’t be fooled by the pastel exterior of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Although laced with comedic elements, this is a serious film with important things to say about suffering and hope, betrayal and courage, brutality and love. It is strange but worth a visit.


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