Interlude 4: I review Grand Budapest Hotel. (I loved it.)

14 May

(I haven’t abandoned the National Book Award winners, I’m just on a reading binge of other books: Annihilation; Chess Story; Hawthorne & Child; The Metaphysical Club; and now The Son.)


Grand Budapest Hotel is a fabulous film, an amalgamation of the films of Ernst Lubitsch, the stories of Stefan Zweig, and the novels of Joseph Roth. It is Wes Anderson’s best film in years, grounded in a melancholic yearning for the past and a deep sadness at the passage of time. Although Hotel is a repository of styles and impressions from other films—there’s even some Hitchcock rattling around in here—it’s also a deeply personal piece of filmmaking, a culmination of Anderson’s passions, obsessions, impulses and influences.

If you like Anderson, you’ll love it.

If you don’t, you’ll find more depth, skill and power than his naysayers thought possible.

There’s something about the time period—of a decadent, decaying Europe on the brink of total annihilation—that lends itself to Anderson’s retro-gazing and his fetish for bold colors and ornate architectural lines.

The story has three narrative layers, a little girl in post-Soviet Budapest reading the novel of a now-dead writer, the book itself a retelling of the story of an old man and his eccentric hotel in the mid-1960s. The old man (played masterfully by F. Murray Abraham) remembers a time when the now-crumbling hotel was a masterpiece of bustling tourism, and his early days as a lobby boy.

Presto! We’re back in 1932.

The lobby boy falls under the tutelage of Gustave, the perfectionist concierge, played to near-perfection by Ralph Fiennes. Gustave spends his time romancing elderly rich ladies, but unlike Zero Mostel in The Producers, he enjoys their company and their sexual attention. He’s a rake, but an affectionate one, and he doesn’t swindle or cheat.

The trouble begins when Fiennes is embroiled in an inheritance battle with an elderly lady’s greedy son (played by Adrian Brody) and her three miserly daughters. He inherits a priceless painting, “Boy with Apple,” and the painting enters the swirl of the bustling Budapest hotel.

Meanwhile, the Nazi party is gathering power, with fascism and nationalism on the rise throughout Europe.

There’s a lawyer (played by Jeff Goldblum), a henchman (Willem Defoe), a police chief (Edward Norton), some French servants (Matthew Almaric and Lea Seydoux), and dozens of bellhops, elevator operators, soldiers, cads, raconteurs, smokers, hangers-on, dandies, shitbirds, and royalty. There’s even some monks.

A great cast at play.

A great cast at play.

The movie has a ski chase, a prison sequence, an underground network of hotel concierges, the looming Nazi party and the breakdown of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s a heady, frantic mix of high and low brow, held together with whipsmart writing, immense technical expertise and an astonishing performance by Ralph Fiennes. It’s a busy film, crowded, bursting with events, incidents, emotion. The movie runs with a wild manic energy, propulsive, joyous.

Then it stops. And a meditative gloom settles in.

And the long twilight. And the nightmare of history.

And the belief that the best days, or even the good days, are long gone.


Anderson achieved too much, in retrospect, with his first two films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore; he set himself up to fail. Rocket is confident, bold, meandering, funny, loose and exhilarating. It’s first-time filmmaking at its best, with a hard, painful pit at its core.

Rushmore is quirkier—set in a private boarding school in some indiscriminate past—and has an astonishing return-to-form performance from Bill Murray. Rushmore follows The Graduate in a lot of ways[1]. It has great music, with lust and innocence and infatuation as its themes; the tone is comic and melancholic simultaneously. There’s even a similar pool scene, only this time it’s a middle-aged man unable to comprehend the life of his children. It’s a hilarious picture, but also lonely.

Only Peter Bogdonavich—with The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon—has produced two such fabulous early films in succession. (And perhaps Francois Truffaut with The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player.) The movies felt personal, accomplished, unique. Anderson had from the start a superb ear for soundtracks and impeccable art design, intriguing casting and arthouse brio.

His next film was The Royal Tennenbaums, a huge affair, advertised as a blockbuster movie with an all-star cast. Tennenbaums is two movies at once, a heartbreaking comedy about a family that’s falling apart, and a cloying, overcooked dramedy that tries too fucking hard. It has a great cast, a wonderful turn from Gene Hackman, astonishing music and a knockout visual style. The actors are all great, but it’s a shaggy affair, with a dumb climax and odd castaway moments (most of them involving co-writer Owen Wilson’s character) that should have been cut. It mostly works, but when it doesn’t, it really doesn’t.

Anderson had grown precious, cutesy, solipsistic, decadent. (Having said that, Alec Baldwin’s narration is amazing, and the movie remains unforgettable.)

The Life Aquatic was worse, tone-deaf in places, weirdly violent in others, full of misfired jokes and a sense of purposelessness. The movie has too many stars, too many twists, too many emotions. It’s a kid’s movie, with pirates and gunfights and undersea bases and even a three-legged dog, but what kid would like it? But it has a killer soundtrack, great set pieces, and a wonderful style. It’s too ambitious, perhaps.

Or too cutesy. Or too mannered. Or too disconnected to any notion of real life.

The Darjeeling Limited is Anderson’s take on a Cassavetes film, or a New Yorker short story. It’s elegant, worldly, sophisticated and glossy. It’s also loose and jaunty, with a distinct feeling of too much improvisation. The plot is intriguing, but the flashback provides little payoff. Everyone is working hard, including Anderson, but the movie doesn’t have enough glue. It’s beautiful colors and great ambience and some funny jokes and excellent music. That’s it. I like Darjeeling a lot, but it’s all over the place. There’s chases and fights and breakups and hookups and a wild lion and a child dies and he has a scene right out of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, only not as strong.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox was a return to greatness, one of the great animated films and a wonderful movie for children. It’s somehow both a Roald Dahl story and a Wes Anderson film at the same time. The stop-start animation works with Anderson’s oddball obsession with symmetry and bold colors and perfection.

A study in Anderson's visual style: bold and complex but never cluttered.

A study in Anderson’s visual style: bold and complex but never cluttered.

Moonrise Kingdom was not good, the worst of all of his infatuations—youth, first love, mannered acting. People loved it, but I felt hoodwinked and a bit cheated. Where was the movie? It was too precious, too cloying. (Submarine—itself clearly inspired by Wes Anderson—came out in 2010, and is a far better Wes Anderson movie about first love. Directed, strangely enough, by Richard Ayoade.)

Critics have, on the whole, been unkind. Criticism of his movies seems to fall into two camps. Some critics argue that he hasn’t fulfilled the promise of his early movies; he isn’t Wes Anderson enough. The other side castigates him for making movies that are too similar to each other; he’s too much like himself.

I think Anderson remains one of our best and most intriguing directors, still humming with energy and promise. None of his movies are bad, not in the way of say, Wolf of Wall Street. Even his weaker movies are interesting. I challenge anyone to watch The Life Aquatic and not come away with something. Ditto for Darjeeling. And if Anderson is overly concerned with style, with intricacy, with mannerisms and mannered behavior, well, he’s the filmmaker. He makes the movies he wants.

He reminds me of a character in a Steven Millhauser short story, an artist who makes miniatures and falls under an obsessive spell, making smaller and smaller pieces of art, with finer and finer components, until no one can see any of it without a magnifying glass.


Anderson’s camerawork has never been this clean and bold. There’s a scene, near the end of the movie, where Willem Defoe tracks Jeff Goldblum through winding streets and a dark museum that is astonishing. The hotel itself is a labyrinthine structure of gilded passageways, ornate balustraded stairwells, and those bright, bold colors of pink and purple and orange. The movie revels in its idiosyncrasies, an interior window with little curtains, roman baths, aging art deco furniture.

Ralph Fiennes is superb. So is his costar, Tony Revolori. Adrien Brody is good. So is Harvey Keitel. Anderson has always had a way with actors.

He doesn't know it yet, but the lobby boy is experiencing the best days of his long life.

He doesn’t know it yet, but the lobby boy is experiencing his best days. Soon, the deluge.

The film isn’t flawless. There’s something off-putting about the occasional tough guy patois, the inconsistent accents, the odd shifts towards violence. The movie has some throw away little bits of dialogue that don’t quite work, and Anderson still relies on big emotional moments without doing the heavy lifting of character-building beforehand. There aren’t enough female characters. And the message of the movie—in the lead-up to the charnel house of World War II—seems to be about manners and hygiene.

But I can’t remember a film that attempts so much and gets so much of it right.

Two weeks later and it’s still rattling around inside me.


[1] I think it’s just as important.

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