Movie review: 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'

If you don’t like Wes Anderson’s movies, you certainly aren’t going to like “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which is a jolt of pure, concentrated Wes-ness.  For his detractors, it will seem like a candy-colored Wes wasteland.  There isn’t a single scene in this entire film that isn’t trying to be arch.  Told as a series of nesting flashbacks, it’s a multi-stage nuclear detonation of irony.

But if you like Wes Anderson films, this is his paramount achievement.  The amount of care poured by the director into every shot is mirrored by the fussy central character, legendary concierge M. Gustave, who presides over the titular Grand Budapest Hotel in a fictional Alpine nation on the verge of World War II.  “You’re the first death squad we’ve actually met in person,” Gustave says smoothly to a pack of black-garbed thugs who board his train.  Thrown into a grim mountain prison, he serves gruel to his hardened fellow convicts with the cheerful brio of a waiter asking five-star restaurant patrons if they’d like fresh ground pepper on their salads.

It’s a comedy of manners, which grows especially funny when Gustave is alone with his protege, lobby boy and film narrator Zero.  The elegant manners are then discarded for some hilariously vicious tirades that show us Gustave is very well aware of how nasty the world around him is becoming.  Ralph Fiennes has so much fun playing this character that he must have wept on the last day of shooting.

The superficial appearance projected by “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is zany comedy.  It’s full of visual humor, including deliberately fake (but intricately detailed) miniatures, crazy sped-up chase scenes, and heavy doses of Anderson’s trademark gift for making the most mundane activities look ridiculous.  If his style works for you, you’ll find yourself laughing at the simple business of riding in an elevator or placing a telephone call.  The villains played by Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe are so over-the-top that it’s hard not to laugh every time they come onscreen, but they’re nasty customers who mean business.  The convoluted plot, concerning the wild battle over wealthy old woman’s inheritance, is another mechanism calibrated to make everyone involved look as silly as possible at all times.

And yet, what’s going on under the surface is actually rather melancholy and dark.  The tonal shift of the abrupt finale, as the multiple layers of flashback collapse on top of each other like a house of cards, feels like a punch to the gut.  The point behind telling the bulk of the tale through a triple layer of reminiscence is to make the elegant prime of the Grand Budapest seem even more remote and utterly lost; it is observed by one character that even in his prime as concierge of the fabled hotel, M. Gustave was already a relic of a bygone era.  You’re laughing at the hijinks, and getting a sweet tooth from all those delicious pastel visuals… but you’re actually watching a fairly horrible tale unfold, especially when you remember who those guys in black uniforms are an allegorical reference to.

Anderson might just have discovered an entirely new level of ironic separation with this film, which will dazzle his fans, and annoy the hell out of anyone who thought his previous work was too precious by half.