We don't cover a lot of Wes Anderson movies out here, with the exception of the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox. And yet his work constitutes a strange sort of science fiction, parallel universes populated by hapless heroes who aptly reflect their surreal surroundings. The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of the best examples of his uniquely weird point of view, complete with invading armies, secret societies and a protagonist who quietly embodies everything a man should be. It's far and away Anderson's biggest financial success, and for once, those box office returns are richly justified.
The titular hotel sits in the mountains of an entirely contrived nation state, and its fortunes match the slow decline of a Europe that it both perfectly embodies and puckishly mocks. Its undisputed master is Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), concierge of concierges, whose service to the guests knows no bounds. That includes frequent liaisons with some of the more elderly female visitors, a fact of which he remains fiercely proud. When one of them dies and leaves him a rare painting in a hastily revised will, he finds himself embroiled in the politics of her sinister aristocratic family, with only his wits and a stalwart bellboy (Tony Revolori) to depend on.
As with Anderson's other films, the onscreen figures all understand exactly how the game is played. The joy lies in our slow discovery of those rules and the intricate way in which they all interconnect. The setting gives Anderson plenty of opportunities to indulge in his fetishistic details: everything from the chaos of war to aristocratic heraldry to ancient masterpieces that never existed but feel like they could have.
That last part is key because it helps explain a big part of the director's appeal. He excels at tickling just enough of our memory to engage us in all those little facets, but because they're totally fictitious, he knows we've never seen them before. We end up feeling nostalgic for places we've never seen and cultures that never existed, thrilling to the perfect way they fit together and eager to return for more.
In that sense, The Grand Budapest Hotel is no different than Star Trek or The Lord of The Rings. It just cleaves a little closer to real world than they do: staying within shouting distance rather than leaping headlong into fantasy. In this case at least, his protagonist is no less heroic than Captain Kirk or Aragorn the King. Gustave believes in old-fashioned notions of honor, his code writ large and absolutely unwavering no matter how much shit gets thrown in his way. We witness it all through the unabashed hero worship of his sidekick, who sees in him a way to deal justly with the universe and receive the infinite reward of a life well lived in return. Anderson sees the ridiculous side to it, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is as funny as any movie this year. But underneath it all, he shares that respect for Gustave's unshakable ethics. The contrivance lies in how well this universe indulges him: how well a firm tone and stiff upper lip can serve you in a place where things still make a weird sort of sense.
A convoluted framing device sets the story up, related by the bellboy as an old man (F. Murray Abraham) who looks back on it all while the hotel slowly crumbles around him. He shares our desire for that long-ago place and time, as lost to him as it is to us. That prevents it from becoming inaccessible -- a criticism leveled against Anderson from time to time -- while quietly reminding us how much nicer things would be if it all worked together as neatly as it does here. It's a fantasy, of course, and more's the pity. At least The Grand Budapest Hotel gives us a nice place to escape for a few hours: a beautiful dream that helps us deal with the slings and arrows of our banal real world with a little more pluck.
Sterling sound and video quality on the Blu-ray make up for a comparative lack of bonus features. Luckily, the extras we do get are delectable: three short pieces expanding on the world, a half-hour’s worth off behind-the-scenes docs, the film’s original trailer and a funny bit with costar Bill Murray showing us around the German town where the movie was filmed.