The Grand Budapest Hotel marks perhaps the first time that the “real world,” however you want to parse meaning out of that idea, has truly shaped a Wes Anderson film. Instead of filtering the imagined reveries of Jacques Cousteau or the dramas of affluent New Yorkers through his own childlike filters, Anderson has made a film about the twin evils of time and war, and how in the early part of the twentieth century those two forces conspired to destroy so much of the quaint innocence of the old world that has long formed Anderson’s cinematic worldview. Instead of feeling like Anderson’s imagined version of the world, here’s a story that allows him to make the Wes Anderson equivalent of a period piece. His many filmic preoccupations are on full display here, but in a film that carries a darkness at its core like few others he’s made.
But, first and foremost, this is a caper. A caper with bleak overtones, sure, but a fleet-footed affair nevertheless that sees Anderson dig deep into his Rolodex to reunite much of his established company of actors while also adding a few new faces to the mix. The most important of those is that of Ralph Fiennes, who’s such a natural fit for Anderson’s droll comic timing and hyper-literate dialogue that it’s a wonder it took them this long to collaborate. Fiennes is Grand Budapest’s center (kind of) as Gustave H, the suave and impeccably put together concierge of the once-great titular hotel. Like a narrative nesting doll, Anderson uses the work of Stefan Zwieg as a jumping-off point for a labyrinthe tale told in hindsight by Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham as the adult Zero) to a young author (Jude Law) who will one day recount this story as an older novelist (Tom Wilkinson). Zero recounts his time as the Grand Budapest’s lobby boy (and is played in flashback by the wonderful Tony Revolori) working under Gustave.
And that’s just the start of it. When one of Gustave’s many elderly lovers (look carefully and her identity is one of the film’s many great jokes) suddenly dies, Gustave is left an invaluable painting, much to the chagrin of her bereaved family, most notably the unhinged Dimitri (Adrien Brody) and his violence-prone bodyguard (Willem Dafoe, basically playing a human version of the rat inFantastic Mr. Fox). Soon Gustave has been jailed, the Grand Budapest is in upheaval, Zero is left to balance the hotel’s future with his feelings for the lovely baker Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), and all the while the specter of those severe-looking men in the gray ZZ uniforms looms over this lavish, dreamlike universe.
One of Anderson’s longest-lingering themes in his work to date has been the coming of age story told in strange universes that supposedly exist within our own but scarcely seem like it. Here two men come of age: Zero, as the narrator who it turns out has some tragic secrets of his own, and Gustave, a man who the film acknowledges was already out of place in his era even before the world changed for good. Fiennes is marvelous as Gustave, a swaggering, fey creation whose foul mouth and fastidious personal nature are only facets of a complicated man. He’s the consummate crook with a heart of gold, long before the actual thievery comes into play. (It’s also nice hearing Anderson write with an R rating in mind again; the director’s dirty streak is as delightfully at odds with the dollhouses he builds onscreen as ever.) Gustave might be a hustler, but he’s one who cares about his marks, and one who knows true evil when he sees it.
And there’s plenty of that in The Grand Budapest Hotel. To return to an earlier point, there is a weariness in play here that’s appeared in his other films, but never so cruelly. Where Moonrise Kingdom only hinted at the universe that its star-crossed young lovers would one day have to inhabit whether they liked it or not, here the end of the fantasy is tangible. The film’s framing device may sometimes work to its detriment, particularly when the heist portion of the film starts to pick up speed, but it ultimately lends itself to a poignant commentary on how fetishizing old things inherently involves watching them get older and older until they become nothing but stories told secondhand from people who can’t even remember all the details after a while. Anderson’s nostalgia for bygone ways of life has never been more directly stated than it is here, and it’s genuinely haunting. That he does it with a very real-life sense of danger lends to this;Grand Budapest has far more severed heads and stabbings than you’d expect from a Wes Anderson movie, but then that’s the whole point. In the fictional European province of Zubrowka the time for whimsy is coming to its end, and the fear isn’t the destruction itself. It’s all the stories that disappear into the ether of time and memory when all the players, and later the storytellers, have come and gone.