What I thought going in :
Wes Anderson’s films have clearly always been stylised and quirky but five years ago, after a decade of film making, something changed and he doesn’t seem to have got past it yet.
It happened when he made Fantastic Mr. Fox. His sensibility was pushed through the filter of animation and while it is no surprise that a stop motion film adaptation of a Roald Dahl book felt a bit cartoony, so did the live action film he made afterwards. It was as though the Mr. Fox experience had somehow changed the way Anderson saw things, at least how he saw them through a lens. The characters and environments in, his subsequent film, Moonrise Kingdom just seemed to be a little more Looney Toons than real life and judging by the trailer, The Grand Budapest Hotel has gone the same way.
To be fair, while it has definitely stepped up recently, this love of exaggerated, caricatured movement did not quite come from the one film as I have suggested. Anderson had played with it before even doing animation with the stop motion creatures in The Life Aquatic. Similarly, another trait of Anderson’s work that has slowly been developing over the years is the company of regular players. Most notable are Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson, who have all made a handful of films with the director and appear again here, but also returning from previous Anderson joints we have Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Defoe, Adrien Brody and Edward Norton.
Just by the simple law of averages others will be clocking up two or more Anderson films in the future as Budapest Hotel also features Saoirse Ronan, Tom Wilkinson, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham and Ralph Fiennes. The poster that shows all of these big name players looks strangely reminiscent of the one for New Years Eve which is probably not a comparison the film was aiming for.
What I thought coming out:
Actually, the film is not quite what I’d anticipated. I was expecting a comedy of manners set around the workings of an up market mountain hotel but the story fairly quickly moves away from its titular location. That isn’t to say that the name of the film is inappropriate though as the hotel, it’s demands and conventions still form the basis for most of the action and characters.
Ralph Fiennes is simply brilliant as the concierge/hotel manager. Here is a man with a pathological compulsion to treat everyone he meets politely and with respect, just as he would with those who stay at The Grand Budapest. Also in keeping with this way of dealing with people, he forgets them once they are dealt with and out of his presence, moving his undivided focus to the next individual or situation in front of him. It is a great bit of characterisation.
Following Fiennes’ Gustave H. on his adventure is newcomer Tony Revolori as Zero, the trainee lobby boy. The Grand Budapest Hotel is essentially his story and I’m sure it is no accident that the ostensible lead in such a starry picture should go to an unknown actor. Revolori is very good as the quiet but brave and determined apprentice, holding his quirky own among exalted company.
It is hard to particularly pick out anyone else from the cast as they all play their part, no matter how small. Willem Defoe and Jeff Goldblum proved memorable for me but it is likely that others will stand out equally for other viewers. Ed Norton does not manage to shine as much here as he did in Moonrise Kingdom, although his part is not entirely dissimilar, and the always brilliant Tilda Swinton just isn’t in it enough.
The plot is essentially a crime caper; a familiar story of things spiralling out of control as the heroes fail to anticipate quite what they are getting into. I was trying to think what it most reminded me of with its zany humour, artificial period setting, broadly painted characters and escalating peril. I was switching between Raising Arizona and A Series of Unfortunate Events but ultimately settled on the work of Georges Méliès, all exaggerated physicality, side on views of vehicles and grand painted sets.
All of this style prevents any degree of emotional engagement but this is not what the film is striving for, it isn’t trying to be sweet like Moonrise Kingdom. Nonetheless it is all still highly engaging and very funny. Not necessarily laugh out loud funny but gently and satisfyingly amusing all the way through. This is more for its characters than its story and The Grand Budapest Hotel is a great place to check in if you like people watching.
The ISWYS Test:
1. Is there a female lead?
2. If that character was your sister would you respect her?
3. If your sister did those things would you proudly tell all your friends about it?
Among that huge cast there are really only four women and they don’t really challenge stereotypes. We have the aged matriarch, the French maid, the humble homemaker used as leverage to get to her brother and the mousey but plucky girl from the bakery. To be fair though, everyone in the film is an archetype. The closest we have to a female lead is the last on that list, Saoirse Ronan’s Agatha but she is so underdeveloped and so incidental to much of the plot that I’m not even giving the film that one. Instead, this movie has Zero.
Is this one for the kids?
For all the whimsy, The Grand Budapest Hotel is quite violent. The film is rated 15 which seems appropriate as there are some shots of recently removed body parts. None of it is the least bit scary, instead getting audience reaction through surprise, but it might make some people squeamish. There is a fair amount of swearing and references to sex too but in the end the greatest excesses are of style, character, and cake. There is quite a lot of cake.