If there’s a dominant theme in Wes Anderson’s strange and whimsical new comedy, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”—as well as most of his other films—it is that of chaos in a world of order. And never is order more enforced than its true main character, the titular, imagined luxury edifice in eastern Europe.
Like Anderson’s filmic style, the Grand Budapest Hotel is regimented to a T. It’s a bastion of perfect symmetry, though in its “modern” state, as the movie opens, it’s considered an “enchanting old ruin.” Most of the action takes place in flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, to 1985, then 1968, then 1932 and back again. Within these eras, most of Anderson’s visuals contain well-ordered frames, and frames within frames—geometric obstructions through which the characters must navigate to survive. Even the film’s screen can be a hindrance to Anderson’s creations. Anal as ever, Anderson uses all three commonly utilized aspect ratios in this film, from the standard widescreen 1:85:1 (in the 1985 segments) to the CinemaScope 2:35:1 (in the ’68 story) to, most prominently, the classic, square 1:33:1 (in the 1932 tale), with each decision reflecting the dominant canvas shape of its cinematic time period.
If all this technical jargon is boring to read, rest assured that the film isn’t boring to watch. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” may be an endless fount of postmodern (and pre-modern) formal self-consciousness, but at its core, it’s a grand adventure, or perhaps a grand illusion. Once the movie’s boggling framing device finds a groove in the 1932 story, we’re off to the races: A young lobby boy named “Zero” (Tony Revolori), who fled a genocide to find employment at the Grand Budapest, is befriended by Gustav H (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s dandyish, heavily perfumed concierge. They soon become partners-in-crime after the death of a beloved guest (and elderly lover of Gustav) leads to a run-in with the guest’s bloodthirsty kin (embodied by Adrien Brody’s mustachioed, black-smocked devil) and a stolen painting. From then on, the film becomes a classic wrong-man adventure tale in the Hitchcock mold, with Gustav and Zero tempting fate in one ostentatious set piece after another. There are minor heroes (Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, and Mathieu Amalric play them), minor villains (Willem Dafoe plays one) and some characters that probably fall in both camps (look to Edward Norton and Harvey Keitel), but the film’s dramatic pendulum always swings back to Gustav and Zero, whose bond brings at least a semblance of real emotion to Anderson’s detached, ironic style—something that cannot be said for all of the director’s arch meta-experiments.
The end result may not be a bastion of depth and substance, but neither is “North by Northwest,” and that’s a picture that is taught in film classes. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” may similarly be studied frame-by-frame one day, and in the meantime it’s the most breezily enjoyable movie of the year so far; it’s gratuitously expensive but laugh-out-loud funny, a singularly offbeat tribute to an obscure Viennese writer (Stefan Zweig) that appropriately revels in its own esotericism. Just as one character remarks of Gustav that “his world vanished long before he entered it,” so too is “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is an anachronism for a wonderful type of movie that hasn’t existed in decades—if it ever did. If it takes a lot of heavy audience-winking to get there, so be it.
At the Broadway, 111 East Broadway, SLC.