Wes Anderson is an acquired taste, and not one that I’d acquired until this film. I have nothing against a self-conscious formalism, but Anderson’s formula seemed too studied, too precious, and occasionally twee for my taste. Every director has the right to create his or her own world; it’s just that I didn’t enjoy my trips to those worlds.
The Grand Budapest Hotel shows the director at perhaps the height of his powers, stirring up a confection that not only delights the eye and ear, but has something of substance underneath the patterns. Moonlight Kingdom was touching at times, but the characters, the casting and the performances didn’t quite mesh. They do here.
Issues of pacing and tone are a challenge for every director. Here, Anderson conquers both brilliantly with a film that clips along at a lively and lovely rhythm and keeps its tone throughout, with only a couple of egregious exceptions. Keeping the tone and moving things along without a bump is akin to the work of Erich Benn, the man who kept the last generation amazed on the Ed Sullivan show by keeping all those plates spinning on the ends of the long rods. Perhaps no other director could keep things this real and this outrageous at the same time.
The story is a memory of a memory, which provides the room for the archness we find in the entire affair. It’s set just far enough in the past, in a place that recalls the black-and-white kingdoms inhabited by Maurice Chevalier in the musicals of the early 1930s, which sets the actions at another remove from reality. This leaves Anderson free to create his own domain, which not only includes his geometric cinematic style, but a style of acting as expressionistic as the actors in Germany’s 1919 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Instead of being edgy and angsty as in that film, though, the acting here is gently heightened, clipped and alternately supercilious and campily violent. It’s unreal, and wittily amusing throughout. There are occasional big laughs, many of which are quick takes or inside jokes, but mostly there are many smaller ones—a delight in this day of loud and obnoxious humor.
The casting is about as good as possible. Some roles are funny; Willem Dafoe and Harvey Keitel play satirized versions of their personae to great comic effect. Jeff Goldblum’s quirks are put to great use with his character. To say that relative newcomer Tony Revolori as Zero more than holds against all the other pros (F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Broday, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton and others) is to do his performance a disservice. He nails the part in a tightrope walk between the grounded and the ridiculous.
The acting star of the film, though, is the actual star of the film. The biggest part belongs to Ralph Fiennes, who creates a character for the ages in his M. Gustave. It’s an Oscar-deserving turn that I can only hope will even be nominated. His character is funny, sad, of another time and place, sexually ambiguous, and positively preposterous. Yet he is sympathetic and full of pathos at the same time. He floats above the floor, above the fray, and above any and all circumstances. There have been cinematic characters similar to M. Gustave, but none exactly like him. Fiennes’ performance alone is worth the price of admission.
What isn’t worth the price of admission are Anderson’s moments of excess in the areas of—how cliché—sex and violence. After creating a heightened world with thinner air and loftier sentiments than our own, Anderson introduces an act of violence that is jarring and crude. It doesn’t stretch the film; it momentarily breaks it.
After a couple of quick takes earlier in the film that were unnecessarily sexual but happily brief, Anderson introduces a pornographic painting (drawing?) that the camera lingers on far more than is necessary or comfortable. It’s distracting in the worst way, and nearly shatters the house-of-cards construction that he’s so painstakingly created up to that point. The latter puts the film out of the viewing of all children and many adults I know. Anderson has used Gustave’s character and occasional crude-but-funny expressions to let us know that there is an adult sensitivity at work here, and they worked to add depth and humor to this rarified world. The crudeness he introduces does him and the film a disservice.
Those jarring moments aside, The Grand Budapest Hotel is probably Anderson’s most mature work. You care about the characters at the same time and to the same degree that you admire the cinematic architecture. The look, the performances, the casting, the pace, the tone—they all work together in a filmic soufflé that never falls. I may become a fan after all.