The Grand Budapest Hotel is unabashedly a Wes Anderson concoction that only he could create, as viewers of his previous seven films will quickly attest, and yet it’s a little bit different as well. The symmetrical compositions, color palette, detailed production design, meticulous camera shots, quirky antics and epic ensemble are all there, but this time Anderson has the biggest canvas he’s ever had to play with, shooting largely in 4:3 to match the time period, and thematically there’s a darker tinge.
To start things off, Anderson employs a story-within a story-within a story framework. It’s not exactly necessary, but it turns the great F. Murray Abraham into the film’s narrator, so he gets away with it. The two main protagonists are newcomer Tony Revolori, as Abraham’s younger self, and Ralph Fiennes. We follow their exploits of working at the Grand Budapest, set in a fictional European country right before the outbreak of WWII, and some of Fiennes extracurricular activities, which revolve around an elderly lady’s will and stealing a priceless painting named Boy with Apple.
Revolori is a revelation and a natural for Anderson’s eccentricities, which as we’ve seen in past films are not always easy for newbies to pick up on. It’s amazing this is just his first big screen outing. Meanwhile, Fiennes, another Anderson first-timer, turns in one of the top five performances of his storied career, being both charmingly captivating and ruggedly profane, often simultaneously, and is a delight to witness in action. The camaraderie between the two is impeccable.
The biggest detriment to Grand Budapest might be in its own ambitions. With the time jumps and endless stream of characters, the story is so jam-packed things fly by at breakneck speed and rarely slow down. It’s never particularly confusing, but repeat viewings will be a must to soak everything in.
From top to bottom, Anderson has assembled his most impressive cast yet, which is saying something, but it also means no one outside of the two leads is fully fleshed out. Anderson regulars like Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman pop by for only one or two minutes, and then they’re gone. Too little of a good thing is hardly the worst criticism to lob at a film, but the world and characters Anderson created are so rich, it would have been nice to spend additional time with them.
As mentioned previously, there’s a shadowy tint to Grand Budapest Hotel that makes it stand out amongst Anderson’s filmography. While all of his work has an underlining element of sadness to it, Grand Budapest embraces that to a fuller extent. Characters die, one even in gruesome fashion, making it probably the first of Anderson’s films to actually classify as violent, and the story’s large passage of time paints events in a more remorseful light.
There’s still plenty of laughs and fun capers to go around, but the real life heaviness leaves as big an impression. In the end, Anderson uses it all as a springboard to address the very nature of storytelling itself, and purposefully or not serves an example of a modern storyteller at the top of his game.