A broad plot description of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” comes off very much like that of a tightly wound thriller: At the dawn of World War II, the concierge of a renowned European hotel must prove his innocence in the murder of a wealthy matriarch, while at the same time elude her greedy family over the possession of a priceless Renaissance painting. It could have been a thriller, maybe even a great thriller, had it been in the right hands. Unfortunately, it was in the hands of writer/director Wes Anderson, who always feels it necessary to imbue his films with an esoteric and exceedingly odd sense of humor, which exists in a lengthy gray zone between wry and absurd. Many have responded well to his peculiar style, but I just don’t get it. Who knows? Perhaps the day will come when I finally will.
The film has four different narrative layers, two of which, right of the bat, simply weren’t needed. Of those two, the first is divided into incredibly brief segments that bookend the film, involving a teenage girl visiting the statue of an unnamed author and reading from one of his novels. Presumably, these bookends take place in the present day. The second layer, also seen briefly, takes place in the 1980s, in which we actually see this author (Tom Wilkinson) as he sits in what I believe to be his own office, narrating his story directly to the camera. That narration carries through to the third layer, the first that’s actually relevant to the story. This is when we go back to the 1960s and meet the author as a younger man (Jude Law); upon visiting the titular hotel, now on its last financial legs, he meets the owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who shares the story of how he acquired the hotel.
The fourth layer, which comprises the bulk of the movie, goes even further back in time to the early 1930s, at which point The Grand Budapest Hotel was a thriving luxury resort nestled in the picturesque alps of Zubrowka (a fictional country, to be sure). Here, we meet the concierge, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a driven, detail-oriented, highly organized man with a preference for a very specific brand of cologne and an eye for his elderly female clientele. One of his other, more colorful quirks is his uncanny ability to pepper his mannerly, erudite way of speaking with crude four-letter words. On a conceptual level, verbal incongruity is funny. The problem is that Anderson doesn’t allow it to be anything more than a concept; it’s merely a gimmick and ultimately serves no real narrative purpose.
During this segment of the film, we also meet Zero as a teenager (Tony Revolori), recently employed as a lobby boy for the Budapest Hotel. Gustave will take young Zero under his wing, but more importantly, they will become the dearest of friends – as dear as they can be in a Wes Anderson film, at any rate. As this is being established, Gustave learns that one of his most devoted hotel guests, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, absolutely unrecognizable under layers of aging makeup), has died under mysterious circumstances. Her will bequeaths him a very valuable painting, much to the chagrin of her grown son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody). With the help of a psychopathic assassin (Willem Dafoe), Gustave is successfully framed for Madame D.’s murder and is sent to prison.
If he’s to escape and clear his name, Gustave must rely not only on his fellow inmates (led by Harvey Keitel) but also on Zero and a series of bit characters played by a who’s who of Wes Anderson regulars, including Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, and of course, Bill Murray. In the meantime, Zero falls in love with an apprentice baker named Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), whom the older version of Zero cannot speak about without bursting into tears. A pure girl with a birthmark on her right cheek shaped somewhat like the country of Mexico, she proves herself daring and resourceful in her willingness to help both Zero and Gustave. The final act will involve a well-planned escape attempt, an ultra high-speed chase between someone on skis and two people on a sled, a severed head in a basket, and the official start of World War II.
There are two artistic choices Anderson made, and I’m at a loss to explain either of them. One was to shoot each of the story’s era in a different aspect ratio – 1.85:1 for the present day and 1980s sequences, 2.35:1 for the 1960s sequences, and 1.33:1, otherwise known as Academy Ratio, for the 1930s sequences. The other was to film the penultimate sequence, and only the penultimate sequence, in black and white. Was the former choice some kind of homage to the way films were shot during those respective periods of history? Was the latter some kind of poignant statement about the devastating reality of World War II? The more I try to work through Anderson’s logic, the more baffling it becomes. Then again, that’s just me. I have no doubt that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” will mean a great deal to those who are in tune to his creative sensibilities.