For his latest film writer/director Wes Anderson takes his trademark style to the fictional Republic of Zubrowka and a once-proud mountainside resort known as The Grand Budapest Hotel with a rich history to share. Relying heavily on narration, the film struggles a bit to get going by beginning in the present and slowly peeling back layers (each jumping 20 years or so into the past) until we finally arrive in the pre-World War II 1930s and the story of fastidious old-school concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his the new lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori).
During the overly-elaborate and unnecessarily complicated (although certainly not boring) first 20-minutes or so as the movie introduces an elderly author (Tom Wilkinson) beginning his own flashbacks to his time at the hotel as a younger man (Jude Law) when he happened to meet the elderly version of Zero (F. Murray Abraham) and thus learned his story, Anderson relies on a variety of his usual bag of tricks involving beautiful cinematography and set design highlighted by the use of some marvelous miniatures.
Once the set-up is complete the near entirety of the film (except for one or two brief scenes with Law and Abraham) takes place during the pre-war era surrounding Gustave’s high-end service (particularly to elderly rich women) which finally pays off when one of his long-term acquaintances dies. It would be easy to dismiss Gustave as nothing more than a gigolo, but Anderson spends the time to delve into the character and showcase the man’s genuine feelings for his women as far more than show or an opportunity of reward (while also making a rather crude, if apt, steak metaphor for the cut of meat he can now afford).
When the family objects to Gustave being given a priceless (and rather hideous) painting as stated in his will, the concierge finds himself framed for the old woman’s murder by the head of the family (Adrien Brody) and his murderous henchman (Willem Dafoe). What follows is an amusing tale of Gustav’s prison tale, eventual escape, and Zero’s love story with an apprentice pastry maker (Saoirse Ronan) which will tie into the main story before all is said and done.
Anderson’s adoring fan base is likely to adore this film while his critics are likely to attack his tendencies to rely far too much on whimsical structure and style while not spending nearly the same effort on character and story. Anderson also falls into the trap of filling his film with several of his old friends in various roles, some of which (Edward Norton, Bob Balaban) work far better than others (Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman).
With only a 97-minute running time Anderson doesn’t over-indulge here (although that opening could certainly use a trim) and I’ll give him credit for spending the time to flesh-out both Gustave and Zero while still finding time for his well-crafted flourishes (such as a terrific chase sequence down a snowy mountainside and a Mexican stand-off inside The Grand Budapest Hotel that leads to some serious gun-play). The film even spends enough time with Abraham and Law to develop a relatively short but effective relationship (even if Abraham’s casting of the older version of an actor he looks nothing like is continuously baffling and distracting).
For me Fantastic Mr. Fox remains Andererson’s most effective and completely realized film (with the core of the story already in existence, allowing the director to spend his efforts playing entirely with its presentation and a stop-motion world that allows for some of his best creative output). Although I don’t think the film has the emotional weight of Moonrise Kingdom or The Royal Tenenbaums (or The Darjeeling Limited for that matter) The Grand Budapest Hotel still has much to enjoy as Anderson offers audiences another memorable (and often quite beautiful) film.