If there were a valid critique to be given of "The Grand Budapest Hotel" -- writer and director Wes Anderson's latest, highly stylized ode to a place that might have been -- it would be that Anderson has fallen victim to his own tropes. But you won't hear that here. The film is just too much fun; and the fact is, it wouldn't be nearly so enjoyable if it weren't for Anderson's over-the-top style.
In the two decades he's been making films, Anderson has gained a reputation for building carefully crafted visual confections of dreamy nostalgia. And "Budapest" is no exception. The film's sets are lush and saturated with color. Every shot is carefully choreographed, every hue meticulously tied to a deliberate and evocative palate. The characters of "Budapest" are dressed in costumes that recall the manner in which a lobby boy, soldier or lawyer might be depicted in an ornately illustrated Victorian-era children's book.
The film begins with a young woman opening a book titled "The Grand Budapest Hotel," by a man identified only as "The Author." From there, the audience is swiftly whisked back in time -- first to 1985, where we meet the late Author, then to 1968, where a younger Author meets the man that inspired his book. Finally we are taken, via a flashback within a flashback, to 1939 -- where the heart of this outlandish caper-comedy-murder-mystery takes place, on the eve of a fictional world war in a fictitious central-European country, the Republic of Zubrowka.
It all begins with the death of Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis (played by a latex-masked, liver-spotted Tilda Swinton). Madame D, as she is called, is the much-older lover of our story's protagonist, Monsieur Gustave H. (vibrantly portrayed by Ralph Fiennes), the head concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel, which rests high in the idyllic mountains of Zubrowka.
Upon learning of her demise, Gustave and his recently hired lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) set off to pay their last respects -- unwittingly thrusting themselves into the midst of a violent power struggle within the wealthy estate of the Desgoffe und Taxis.
When it is revealed by the estate's lawyer and executor (a delightfully deadpan Jeff Goldblum) that Madame D has left her lover the priceless painting, "Boy with Apple," Gustave finds himself in the crosshairs of his beau's eldest son, Dmitri (played with an air of cold, blueblooded entitlement by Adrien Brody), and his leather-clad henchman, Joplin (a glowering and fearsome Willem Dafoe).
Gustave is promptly framed for Madame D's murder and imprisoned -- only to break out with the help of some hardened criminals, including the tattooed, bald-headed Ludwig (Harvey Keitel, who, rather than attempting to affect an accent appropriate to the period, pitches his voice like his wise guy characters from "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction").
They bust through the floor of their cell and later through a barred window using a set of rock hammers -- smuggled into the prison hidden in ornate pastries, baked and decorated by Zero's love interest, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan, who like Keitel, makes no attempt to disguise her natural Irish accent).
A series of elaborate and cartoonish montages ensue -- with Gustave and Zero scurrying about by train, gondola, sled and motorcycle (often at an unnaturally accelerated speed, in a manner recalling the tomfoolery of The Three Stooges) -- all the while avoiding the authorities and Joplin, while they collect the evidence necessary to clear the concierge's name and catch the real killers.
Due to the film's breakneck pace and the myriad cameos from familiar Anderson collaborators, including Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton and Owen Wilson, the audience never really gets a chance to delve deeply into what makes the story's leading men tick. As such, it could be said that the characters in "Budapest" are lacking in depth, especially by comparison to Anderson's previous work.
There is nothing approaching the palpable pain we find in Bill Murray's portrayal of the severely broken Steve Zissou in "The Life Aquatic;" nor are we given many clues about what drives the men and women of "Budapest" -- not like we are in the telling flashback sequences of "The Darjeeling Limited."
Then again, no one should be expecting that level of character exploration from this film in the first place. "Budapest" is a caper, after all -- more akin to 1963's epic ensemble adventure "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" than 1967's dialog-heavy "The Graduate" (which is rumored to be one of Anderson's major influences).
And besides, unlike "Aquatic" and "Darjeeling," "Budapest is not meant to examine the faults, hang-ups and idiosyncrasies of individuals. Rather it is an examination of the faults, hang-ups and idiosyncrasies of two colliding cultures.
Observed from this vantage, the film's characters represent the values of their respective worldviews, and are not meant to be taken as fully formed individuals with complete back stories.
Gustave, Zero and all those who fight on their side, form the personality of the film's namesake -- they are an incarnation of The Grand Budapest Hotel and the world for which it stands.
It is a world where etiquette, poetry, literature and art are the greatest achievements of humanity. It's a world that is governed by strict rules, to which Gustave hews religiously (literally -- he holds a nightly sermon for all of his lobby boys and wait staff on the importance of social mores). Yet, it is also a world in which individuality is prized -- a place where the Republic of Zubrowka's borders are respected.
Clad in black and blood-red tones, Dmitri and Joplin represent the rising power of the jingoistic "Zig Zag" forces, who wear arm bands emblazoned with the letters "ZZ," and are clearly meant to hearken back to Hitler's SS. Theirs is a world where global assimilation is the goal, and only the powerful are respected.
The quirks of Anderson and "Budapest" recently prompted one of the film's harsher critics, David Thomson of the New Republic, to call the film "dazzling, exhausting but bereft." He argued that Anderson's style is "authoritarian," and looms over the film -- preventing his characters from being anything more than ornamental flourishes in a gaudy Faberge egg.
In particular, Thomson says, the performance of the film's leading man, Gustave, is "smothered by Anderson's chronic preference for guest stars and demented art direction."
But that's not the case at all.
Anderson's storybook stylization and his deadpan sense of humor work perfectly before this most bleak of historical backdrops. In "Budapest," Anderson is meditating on an era, which prompted Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase "the banality of evil" and inspired such works as "Life Is Beautiful" and "Catch 22." It was an absurd time and in "Budapest" Anderson proves he is nothing if not adept at capturing the absurdity of the human condition.
Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan and Tony Revolori star in "The Grand Budapest Hotel." Photo by Bob Yeoman/Fox Searchlight Pictures.