“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is based on the writings of famed author Stefan Zweig. It’s a story within a story within a story about the proprietor of The Grand Budapest Hotel during the 1930s. The movie opens with a woman reading the book at the author’s memorial; it then switches to the aged author (Tom Wilkinson) telling the story of his book, which then takes us to him as a young man (Jude Law) staying in the ruins of the hotel interviewing the owner (F. Murray Abraham), and it is his story of his former employer that becomes the focus of the film. To showcase this framing device, the aspect ratio shifts until it comes to a stop at 4:3, keeping everything nice and neatly packaged on the screen.
The story as it is told follows Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the newly hired lobby boy at the hotel. He’s quickly taken under the wing of M. Gustave H. (played charismatically by Ralph Fiennes), the manager who’s a flamboyant and larger than life figure that charms many an old woman of wealth. One such woman, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), leaves his hotel and promptly dies, bringing her vast wealth into question among her extensive family. She leaves a priceless painting, “Boy with Apple” to Gustave, which offends her vile offspring to say the least. Through a convoluted conspiracy of murder and intrigue headed by Dmitri (Adrien Brody), the late Madame D’s greedy son, Gustave is framed for murder and all witnesses and key figures standing in the way of his fortune begin to get bumped off by the villainous J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe).
There are many things to praise this movie for, and we’ll start with something obvious. Ralph Fiennes is brilliant and perfectly cast in his role, stealing just about every scene. He delves so easily into this character that it elevates the material, which is already very quick and witty. It’s an incredibly natural performance, despite the false reality of the setting. You believe the way this character speaks and interacts with people.
The rest of the cast is fantastic as well, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, and Jeff Goldblum are standouts in particular, but there are plenty of Wes Anderson regulars appearing in even the smallest of roles (in fact I think every Wes Anderson collaborator shows up at some point). Jude Law, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, and even Owen Wilson make humorous appearances.
The next aspect, and the most crucial here, to point out is the director. Wes Anderson is a director of a very specific style, one that’s easy to spot in almost anything he does. He’s a director that’s difficult to describe without using the term mise-en-scène (if you’ll forgive the film-school terminology). What I’m referring to is the meticulous staging of his every shot. Any given still from this movie could theoretically stand alone in the way it’s framed. There’s a cut out or popup book quality to his framing, and the attention to detail and the manner in which characters are place or positioned is extremely specific and choreographed. Needless to say, his style is in rare form for this movie.
His visual technique seems absolutely perfect for the period setting and the carefree humor that hearkens back to comedy classics of the 1930s and 40s. He’s created his own unique world here, for it is set in the 1930s fictional Republic of Zubrowka (a classic Hollywood device if ever there was one). There are Nazi stand-ins, known here as the Zig Zag Division (the ZZ emblem), and every character speaks as the actor would normally, be they American, British, Irish, or otherwise. It’s at once a nostalgic fairy tale, referencing in vague distance any form of recognizable reality.
The wittiness and the quick pacing certainly brings iconic comedy directors like Ernst Lubitsch to mind, but it’s shaped into something else by Wes Anderson’s eye and careful crafting. It’s an utter joy to watch, regardless of your interest in his movies. It’s lighthearted and farcical, exuding constant charm and never wavering from its tone, regardless of the setting or action. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a perfectly balanced little creation from this director and stands out as his greatest film since “The Royal Tenenbaums”, and in my humble opinion, his strongest work.