Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a grand comedy of manners, or perhaps more precisely, a grand comedy about manners. That may sound too slight a topic to base a movie on, but if you think that, then you don't know Wes Anderson, or his movies like "The Royal Tenenbaums," "Fantastic Mr. Fox," and "Moonrise Kingdom."
He's practically created a movie genre unto himself, given his penchant for crafting sly, quirky, and charming celebrations of artifice and pretense. In his best films, (and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is one of his best,) Anderson generates whimsical worlds that resonate ever so slightly with our own.
Despite multiple framing devices that jump between present day, the 1980's, the 1960's, and the 1930's, most of this film takes place in the 1930's, at a celebrated spa hotel high in the mountains of a fictional central European country called Zubrowka. With its exquisitely detailed architecture, The Grand Budapest Hotel looks like a fanciful wedding cake with ornate pink and white icing. Naturally, it caters to the wealthiest of the wealthy and they expect the best service possible.
This duty falls upon our hero, Monsieur Gustave, the hotel's concierge and manager, played to fastidious perfection by Ralph Fiennes.
Monsieur Gustave caters to his guests' every need to such a degree that he becomes the main attraction of the hotel. He sees himself as so much more than a mere concierge. He's the master, or maestro, of manners in the Grand Budapest Hotel. He insists on a strict code of conduct for himself and his staff, even if the people they are catering to fall far short of that code. A lover of hyperbolic romantic poetry, he's convinced that seeing the world through poetry's rose-colored glasses is not a way of denying the world but a way of improving it.
Much of the movie mines the humor in the discrepancy between his high-flown rhetoric and the dire circumstances he often finds himself in. For instance, at one point he's stuck in prison, forced to make the rounds of all the cells, delivering breakfast. But even then his well-bred civility can't be squelched.
"May I offer any of you inmates a plate of mush?" Monsieur Gustave asks. He proceeds to sprinkle a dash of salt into each bowl, you know, to bring out the hearty flavor of said mush.
If this is all starting to sound a bit too much like Anthony Hopkins in "Remains of the Day," I can assure you it's not, for I have yet to mention all the zany goings-on in this movie. With a cast of over a dozen celebrity actors, including Jude Law, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and Willem DaFoe, farce becomes the order of the day. There are mad-cap chases, on trains, in monasteries, and sometimes on skis and bobsleds through the mountains. There are multiple instances of people hanging on for dear life by their fingertips, sometimes outside hotel room windows and sometimes on mountain cliffs. Silly shootouts in hotels and ridiculous prison breaks and a number of comical deaths are also thrown into the mix.
Despite all this frivolity, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" never becomes merely frivolous, thanks to its intimations of a nearing horror. Set, as much of it is, between the two World Wars, this movie readily acknowledges that its 1930's world is a bubble about to be burst. And all the romantic poetry in the world won't be able to save it.
When Gustave first references "a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity," we laugh at its hyperbole and pretension. But by film's end it resonates as prescient. It turns out there's a nobility of sorts in Monsieur Gustave's superciliousness.
In some ways, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" reminds me of the candy-colored pastries carefully delivered to countless customers throughout the movie. Specifically the pastries smuggled into prison that were hiding files and chisels inside.
Wes Anderson's latest may look like a frothy lightweight confection, but buried inside is something substantial, and maybe even useful.