If only The Grand Budapest Hotel had arrived a month earlier. Only now, when those of us in northern climes are finally emerging from a three-month deep freeze, are we granted the balm of Wes Anderson’s winter movie—a film set among lavish European resorts that invite visitors to lounge among romantic vistas of whitecapped mountains.
Not that it’s an escapist film, though it seems that way for the first hour-plus of its brief running time. At first it seems to be a live-action Fantastic Mr. Fox, a baroque caper film for grown-ups; but in the end, The Grand Budapest Hotel proves to be an elegiac ode to one of the many times and places when it seemed like humanity might be able to have nice things—like luxurious hotels, yes, but also like decency and peace.
A prominent end credit acknowledges the film’s debt to the writings of Austrian author Stefan Zweig (1881-1942). It’s little surprise that Anderson is captivated by Zweig, whose novels involve situations like a chessmasters’ rivalry on a cruise ship, a mysterious letter from an unknown woman who had a doomed affair with a prominent writer, and a doctor from Leipzig who goes to practice medicine in Indonesia only to encounter a Dutch merchant’s wife who wants a discreet abortion. Reading Zweig’s plot summaries, you can almost populate them with Anderson’s cast of regulars.
In The Grand Budapest Hotel, the heroes are a concierge of legendary skill (Ralph Fiennes) and a lobby boy (Tony Revolori, in a block-lettered hat designating his job) who have to keep a priceless painting that was willed to the concierge by his deceased, elderly, fabulously wealthy lover (Tilda Swinton) from the grasping hands of her wicked extended family. This involves escapades including a prison break, a high-speed downhill ski/sled chase, and a cliffside confrontation with the family’s thuggish assassin (Willem Defoe).
Moonrise Kingdom (2012) was so sweet and simple that it seemed to open new possibilities for Anderson as a storyteller. The Grand Budapest Hotel puts Anderson squarely back in his accustomed territory; it’s reminiscent most strongly of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), a portrait of a middle-aged man who effortlessly sustains a highly eccentric lifestyle even as it becomes increasingly clear that his entire life is a period piece.
Grand Budapest Hotel is missing Life Aquatic’s infinite whimsy and vivid characterizations—as well as, most significantly, the presence of Bill Murray in a starring role—but nonetheless, it packs several ordinary films’ worth of flair into a breakneck caper that never bores. (Or, if you’re not in the pro-Anderson camp, never ceases to bore.)
Given how swift and silly Grand Budapest Hotel feels, it comes as a surprise when the film wraps up and we proceed back through the layers of narrative Anderson uses to frame the central story. (In a subtle nod to film history, as the film cuts backwards through time, its aspect ratio changes to reflect that common to the era being depicted—so much of Grand Budapest Hotel, like all of Gone With the Wind, is in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio rather than the 2.35:1 aspect ratio that’s standard today.)
Explicitly invoking the march of history, Anderson reminds us that the things we hold most dear will inevitably crumble to dust and be forgotten. All the more reason to cherish them today, and to enjoy—as Fiennes does—liberal helpings of sex and whiskey.