Mixing Lubitsch, Hitchcock, the writings of Stefan Zweig and possibly such ensemble works as Grand Hotel, Wes Anderson has made a genre pastiche that retains his own insular preoccupations despite the apparently free wheeling wit and whimsy.
The plot is gleefully convoluted. A young writer (Jude Law) encounters Mr Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) in an empty Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968 and they strike up a conversation during which Moustafa is called upon to reminisce about the glory days of the Grand Budapest and his own beginnings in the hotel as a lobby boy. Zero Moustafa enters the hotel in 1932 and is put under the strict tutelage of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a foppish old charmer who sleeps with a lot of the older ladies who visit the hotel. The death of one of his conquests, Madame D. (a much made-up Tilda Swinton), leads to a complex plot involving murder, dangerous relatives, the theft of a priceless artwork and a chase across Eastern Europe.
The majority of the film is taken up with a fast-paced chase storyline, designed and played like a 1930s-1940s screwball comedy, coupling the fast talking of His Girl Friday with the antics of To Be Or Not To Be, with a slight measure of the melancholy of something like The Shop Around The Corner thrown in. Ralph Fiennes is great in a comic role designed perfectly to showcase his comic timing and ability to talk quickly but clearly. Indeed, few other characters make an impression alongside him – and few are even given the screen time to make an attempt – allowing Fiennes to dominate the film.
That said, it remains Wes Anderson’s film, and ultimately The Grand Budapest Hotel will stand or fall based on one’s own ability to enjoy Anderson’s typical trademarks. The lateral camerawork (mainly moving only either forward and backwards or side to side at ninety degrees to the action) works well here where it felt only like an affectation in Moonrise Kingdom. The quirky humour is often in keeping with the tone of the film as is Anderson’s fondness for extreme artifice, which remains somewhat irritating. The world of the film is again one of strict rules and hierarchies. All of the above made Moonrise Kingdom feels like such a soulless work even despite its obvious emotional honesty, but in The Grand Budapest Hotel it feels that Anderson has finally found the right story on which to hang his preoccupations.
And yet it isn’t as successful as it might at first appear. The film noticeably flags in the middle and there are many unsuccessful attempts to spark it up. Sudden bursts of violence, though never realistic, create tonal shifts that are too off-putting in a film that has no real reason to be engaging in them. Similarly, the profanity, initially so funny because it is initially so surprising in a film so apparently prim and proper, becomes an old joke. The artifice of many scenes and the attention to detail in many of the sets and props only distract from the characters that Anderson seems to want us to empathize with. In the end, it gives The Grand Budapest Hotel a somewhat unpleasant feel, a dishonesty or coldness that may impair your enjoyment of the film. This proves particularly harmful when the film becomes properly melancholic in its closing moments. Here the film should be moving and heartbreaking – and there are plenty of ideas here that suggest that it could have been – but it only feels like a final flourish from a trendy filmmaker who doesn’t really care either way.
The film ends nicely as it begins. In what is apparently the modern day, a young woman finds a statue of an author in a seemingly deserted Eastern Europe city. She opens one of his books and is transported back to the time when the author (Tom Wilkinson) wrote the book. In writing the book, the author is in turn transported back to his younger self (Jude Law) who meets the older Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), whose tragic story will form the plot of the book that the older author is writing. Moustafa’s story transports us to 1932 and the bulk of the film. This is mirrored at the end of the film by a few short shots bringing us from 1932 to 1968 to 1985 to the final shot of the young woman reading by the statue of the author – a sequence that is delicately realized and acts as a moving and melancholy portrait of the loss engendered by the march of time and man’s foolish cruelties. However, it is difficult to believe that this sequence is truly heartfelt and not more a mere gesture, one more vacuous tonal shift to keep the audience on their toes. There is heart here surely – and this is clearly borne out by the tribute to Zweig, who tragically committed suicide along with his wife in Brazil in 1942, left hopeless by the tragic and horrendous events in Europe at the time – but it is packaged in a film that is too cool, too stylised, too dead inside to be truly emotionally engaging.
All of Anderson’s films (I haven’t seen The Darjeeling Limited and Fantastic Mr. Fox) are fairly cold and a little mechanized, inhuman. Though with Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel there is a vague sense that he is softening up, it is not yet nearly enough. As fun a romp as The Grand Budapest Hotel may be for the majority of its running time, it remains just too eager to shock, surprise and poke fun to be truly emotionally involving when it suddenly decides to shift into a darker register. It merely feels like a dishonest film that wants to pluck at the heartstrings but is too cool to risk looking soft. And though it has been organised and timed like a precise and complex grandfather clock, it is still just as inanimate.