We all have our various cravings when it comes to food. Some of us crave salt, some sugar, some starch. The thing about these cravings is that they pay no nevermind to what our bodies actually need, and instead are spurred by what some part of our brain wants. In the case of those of us who like sweets, the want is especially curious since the source offers no nourishment and delivers a satisfaction that is fleeting.
But sweets taste so damned good…
Our story is told by the writer (Jude Law). During a stay at the then-rundown Grand Budapest Hotel, he comes across Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Curious about what he’s been told about the old man, the writer asks if he’d mind opening up about his story. Turns out, his story is a good one.
In his younger days, Mr. Moustafa was called Zero (Tony Revolori). He first arrived at The Grand Budapest when he got a job as a lobby boy. During those days, he was under the tutelage of the hotel’s concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). In those days, the entire country was on the precipice of war, but this doesn’t seem to concern Gustave much. He’s more interested in serving his customers – most of whom are divorcees who are knocking on death’s door.
When one of them does in fact kick it, she bequeaths to Gustave a priceless painting titled “Boy With Apple”. When this happens, her son Dmitri (Adrien Brodey) is aghast and swears that Gustave actually murdered his mother to get to her fortune. His suspicions get Gustave arrested and thrown in jail until the whole matter can be sorted out.
While he’s there, his elaborate support network comes together to aid in his escape. It’s a team that Zero fronts, with help from a pastry chef (Saoirse Ronan), the dead woman’s butler (Mathieu Amalric), an escape artist (Harvey Keitel), and an entire clan of fellow concierges. In the meantime, the drums of war beat louder, and many greedy people try to get their hands on the fortune left behind by Gustave’s one-time paramour.
Many times over within THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, we see its characters eating and handling pastries from a patisserie named ‘Mendl’s’. These confections are both ornate and intricate, reminding us of times gone by and places we’ve never been. The packages they come in are every bit as charming and ornate as the sweet delights they contain.
That’s this movie in a nutshell.
The film isn’t trying to tap into a deeper meaning. It isn’t looking to tackle themes of disenfranchisement, isolation, abandonment, or unrequited love. It’s not trying to revolutionize the medium, or become a cultural touchstone. It wants to be something that makes its customers happy. It wants to be something sweet and enjoyable, presented in a bright and pleasant package. If it has an ambition, it is perhaps that the joy it encapsulates stays with its customers long after they are finished consuming it. To all of these ends, the film is a success.
A trademark of director Wes Anderson is the way the sets of his films become elaborate dollhouses. His sets are often shown in cross-section so we can get a feeling for their construction and how the characters move about them. In many ways, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL feels like the most elaborate, most wonderful dollhouse he has ever built. Its colour palette is glorious, captured both in vibrant hues and delicate pastels. The structure of it is so full of life with characters that come-and-go in a blink, but never fail to leave an impression before they exit. In fact, if there is a knock on this film, it could be that so many characters get the short shrift. Indeed as the credits rolled, I found myself wanting to spend more time with Ludwig, Deputy Kovacs, M. Ivan, and The Young Writer (or even The Old Writer),. We can’t though – there are too many parts of the dollhouse to play with, and only so much time we get to spend in the playroom.
A lesser film might lean back on its handsome charm and call it a day – but there is where THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL really succeeds. Not well-enough content to unspool pretty pictures and wait for applause, the story plays itself out with one of the best scripts you’re like to see in a long time. Besides the warmth and joy of the larger story, the dialogue itself strikes an amazing balance. It spends long stretches making its characters speak in words and phrases seldom heard outside of a Charlotte Bronte novel. Not only do its characters rattle off these phrases at a frightening speed, but they do so in a way that never feels as though they are talking over us. However, knowing full well that not every audience member is interested in a period drama, the script is peppered with a lot of modern stingers timed perfectly for optimal effect. In any other film, “Are you fucking kidding me?” gets lost in the fray. In this film, it’s like a violin solo in the middle of a symphony.
If there’s a criticism to be levelled at this film, it’s only that it has too much fun. Up until now, Wes Anderson’s career has primarily given us quirky films that while very twee usually come with a spoonful of meaning behind them. While it might seem strange to say that I want some starch with my sugar, that is exactly what I’m saying. Not much – just a bite or two. Just something to make all of this richness stay in my stomach a little longer. It’s a minor criticism though, and one that is cast aside as it clearly is not this film’s intent.
We have been brought to THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL to consume sweet, delectable treats…and the chef has spared no expense.