The Grand Budapest Hotel movie review: best exotic nonsense

The Grand Budapest Hotel green light

A grownup storybook of a movie spun out of candy-colored nonsense that challenges you to embrace its falseness and deny its romance.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Wes Anderson

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Thank god for Wes Anderson. Our entertainment ecosystem may be one of bland tediousness in which creatively bankrupt movie machines spit out the same stories over and over again, but once in a while Anderson will commute from the other plane of existence he lives on — I imagine the colors are brighter there, and the air always faintly redolent of baking cookies — to bestow upon us a cinematic bonbon such as The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson’s boons are a torment as much as a treat, of course, reminders of just how unoriginal almost everyone else making movies is. Somehow, I endure them anyway.

Most fantasies go out of their way to convince you of their reality. Anderson (Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Darjeeling Limited) taunts us, as Hotel opens, with the likelihood than none of what we’re about to see is entirely factual. Because it is being related to us by The Author (Tom Wilkinson: Unfinished Business, Selma) in the 1980s, recalling a time in the 1960s when he (now played by Jude Law [Black Sea, Dom Hemingway], so we know The Author is embellishing) visited the once glorious Grand Budapest Hotel — in the famous and historied European Republic of Zubrowka — and heard a story from its owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham: Inside Llewyn Davis, Thirteen Ghosts), of how he came to own the hotel. So we jump back again, to the 1930s, and learn of Moustafa’s apprenticeship, when he was known as simply Junior Lobby Boy Zero (Tony Revolori) — Zero is his given name, not a numerical designation of rank or anything — to the legendary Grand Budapest concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes [The Invisible Woman, Skyfall], who I did not think could be so funny), of whom, of course, many a tale you will have already heard.

Is this the truth of Gustave, at last? Unlikely! In case you’ve lost track, that’s now four layers of probably fictionalization we’ve drilled down past: Anderson’s, The Author’s (1980s), The Author’s (1960s), and Moustafa’s. Which makes this grownup storybook of a movie more like a grownup popup book, except what pops up is — as the surprisingly and cheerfully vulgar Gustave might call it — bullshit. Wonderful bullshit spun out of candy-colored nonsense about the contested will of a rich old countess (Tilda Swinton: The Zero Theorem, Snowpiercer), a false accusation of murder, a stolen Old Master painting, rising fascism, subversive baked goods (provided by Saoirse Ronan: The Host, Hanna), the “mysterious and utterly reliable” intervention of fate, a chase through an alpine monastery, a secret society of hotel concierges… and that’s not even the whole cloth of it.

Anderson teases us visually, too, with the blatant falseness of his delightful miniature landscapes: the hotel itself, tucked away on a mountain outcropping, looks like a demented dollhouse. His use of varying aspect ratios, to reflect what movies would have looked like in the 1930s, 1960s, and 1980s — that is, from pretty square to widescreen — draws our attention in an appropriately jarring way to a construct of how movies are presented to us that we don’t typically notice.

luggagelabelBut the film is also, from another angle, wonderfully tearing away bullshit of a different sort. Hotel is what might happen if Anderson decided to spin a movie out of a collection of romantic old luggage labels, the ones from the time when travel was the exclusive province of the wealthy and faraway places retained a mystery because of that… and then chose to yank away the romantic veneer itself. For if Zero’s story isn’t true in its details, it certainly feels true in its atmosphere: Zubrowka in the 1930s is a place of loneliness and violence, secrecy and scheming, greed and smallmindedness… and that’s before the fascists arrive to hang their black banners in the hotel as the officers set up HQ there!

At least that’s what the history books say. I’d still love to visit there anyway, if I could get my hands on a time machine.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of The Grand Budapest Hotel for its representation of girls and women.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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