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A Wonderful Contraption

by John Rodat on March 27, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Directed by Wes Anderson


I’m not sure which group should be most eager to see Wes Anderson’s newest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel: his fans or his passionate detractors. Those who have enjoyed Anderson’s work thus far will find much to like, as the work is very true to the established aesthetic; but those who find Anderson’s movies overly precious, shallowly whimsical or frantically superficial . . . well, those folks are going to loooove bitching about this one.

The movie uses as its organizing conceit—or contrivance—the chance meeting between a novelist (Jude Law) and the mysterious owner of the titular hotel, Mr. Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham). The hotel, once the most opulent and popular in the imaginary Eastern European country of Zubrowka, has fallen into shabbiness. Over dinner, Mustafa tells the young writer the story of how he came to be in possession of this now-dingy palace and of his relationship with its most accomplished concierge, M. Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes).

The Grand Budapest Hotel

This dinner meeting is, itself, a flashback, which gives way to yet another and then to many, many flashes back and forward—over decades, over days. Imagine a game of three- (or six- or seven-) card monte played with Russian nesting dolls; that might be the best metaphor. It’s a device I thought added a purposeful comic, almost slapstick, energy and others may find annoying or evidence of a near-total lack of storytelling depth.

Eh. Whatever. I mean, if you’re going to let that kind of thing bother you . . . . But the plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel, ostensibly centered upon the contested will of an aging guest of the hotel and special friend (Tilda Swinton) of M. Gustav, is of little matter. The film is, in fact, a throwback to comedies of the early 20th century. It’s Chaplin- or Keatonesque, an affinity made all the more overt in Anderson’s use of miniatures rather than CGI for special effects. So, though there is a mystery, of a sort, complete with a private hit man (Willem Dafoe), a prison break led by a beefy, badly tattooed thug (Harvey Keitel), a surprisingly polite fascist officer (Edward Norton), etc., it’s just a convenient route along which to string amusing caricatures and sight gags.

The most immediate impression is that this is perhaps the most Andersonian of all Anderson’s movies. It’s a frantic wind-up device designed with incredible intricacy. To mix metaphors, the film’s alpine setting can, therefore, call to mind a cuckoo clock with elaborately gingerbreaded eaves. The kissing figures that emerge at the hour have little to add by way of information, but you can still admire the craftsmanship.

But that’s a less generous read than I had, myself. I greatly admire Anderson’s craftsmanship. But I think he’s underrated as a director of actors. (He’s certainly pulled career-best performances out of Bill Murray.) His leading man in this one—the unlikely Ralph Fiennes—is wonderful: by turns passionate and preposterous, he is the very genius, its personified spirit, of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a charming anachronism whose very faults and ridiculous attributes are its most lovable.