March 12, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”


THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL:  Worth A Ticket – Wes Anderson’s Latest Fancy Box Has Something Inside

Where has the “Academy” 1.37:1 screen aspect ratio been all of Wes Anderson’s life?  One of Anderson’s visual motifs (some would say “fetishes”) is to photograph his actors enclosed in windows, doorways, or other pieces of production design, and the tall, boxy shape of Academy ratio suits him perfectly.  Plus its very use bespeaks a bygone time, and no kind of time pleases Anderson more.  On yet another level, how better to tell a tall tale than via a tall screen?

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL tells a story within a story within a story, and Anderson has filmed it the same way.  Brief framing sequences in conventional 1.85:1 (more or less the modern standard for HD TV) introduce the older version of someone known only as The Author (Tom Wilkinson), who tells the camera about a narrative passed on to him in 1968.  Those sequences are shot in widescreen 2:35:1, and in them, the middle-aged Author (now Jude Law), staying at the now nearly decrepit Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional Communist country of Zubrowka, dines with the rich, eccentric owner of the Hotel, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who tells him the story of his beginnings in 1932 as a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest, and ultimately how he came to own the hotel and why, despite its disrepair, he will never sell it.  Zero’s story, which takes up the bulk of Grand Budapest, is shot in the old-time Academy ratio.

Zero’s tale (in 1932, he’s played by Tony Revolori) is as grand as the hotel was in those days.  He was taken under the wing of the hotel’s concierge, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), whose impeccable service to the hotel guests included nights spent in their rooms.  One of those special guests, known as Madame D (an imperious Tilda Swinton), suddenly and mysteriously dies and, it develops, has left M. Gustave her priceless painting “Boy With Apple.”  That ignites a battle with Madame’s greedy son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and Dmitri’s ruthless henchmen Jopling (Willem Dafoe), who frame M. Gustave for Madame D’s murder.

There are heists, a prison break, and a surprising number of killings, as well as a romance between Zero and pastry delivery girl Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), and the concerted efforts of a secret society of hotel concierges and butlers known as the Society of the Crossed Keys, populated by such Anderson favorites as Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Owen Wilson.  (Not to worry, Anderson stock company members Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel and Edward Norton show up too.)

All of it, down to the tiniest detail–no doubt including details only visible to microscopic examination–is spectacularly designed (by Adam Stockhausen), costumed (by Milena Canonero), photographed (by Robert Yeoman) and scored (by Alexandre Desplat), each of them an Anderson veteran.  And like Anderson’s other films, it runs the risk of being twee, hermetically enclosed within his very particular sensibility.  That worked wonderfully for The Fantastic Mr. Fox, because the animated genre suited Anderson’s creation of a goodhearted objet d’art, but it’s been frustrating in his recent live-action films like The Live Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited and even Moonrise Kingdom, all of which have felt admirable but also so aesthetically distanced that they had little emotional impact.

Grand Budapest, though, represents a step for Anderson outside the Hazmat suit of his head.  Although Zubrowka exists in its own comic-opera universe (Anderson has dedicated the film to the writer Stefan Zweig, but the films of Ernst Lubitsch are an obvious influence), it’s one that isn’t immune from war or bloodshed.  Dafoe’s and Brody’s characters become members of something very like the SS, and the film’s droll hijinks take a violent turn.  Earlier Anderson films have mourned the collapse of families, but Grand Budapest is a monument to a way of life (and moviemaking) that doesn’t exist anymore–it’s no accident that the film begins and ends in a cemetery, or that rather than the comic “objective” narrators of Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, this one is told by characters for whom its events have genuine weight.

Anderson’s films have often benefited from the central presence of an actor new to his ensemble who can shake up their energy (think of Gene Hackman in Royal Tenenbaums, or George Clooney in Mr. Fox), and here that’s Ralph Fiennes, giving his funniest and most likable performance in years.  M. Gustave is smooth but not unctuous–he has quite the dirty mouth–and he’s a hustler as well as a professional; when his time comes, and with it the civilized era he represents, it registers as a real loss.  The other Anderson newbies have more passive roles, especially Revolori and Ronan, who come off as barely more adult in their romance than the 12-year olds in Moonrise Kingdom.  The vets, of course, know exactly how to play Anderson’s degree of stylization.

Grand Budapest is Anderson’s most entertaining piece of work since Mr. Fox, filled with gleefully bonkers and homemade action sequences (there’s a luge chase near the end that’s a beaut), but it’s also his most emotionally resonant since Tenenbaums.  Without retreating from his love for design and artifice, he’s found a way to bring them closer to a recognizable world.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."