As of late, nostalgia has infected our culture be it on the Internet, television and even film. It has been a through-line through writer/director Wes Anderson’s filmography whether it’s Dignam trying to live out the heist movies of the 70s or Mr. Fox’s desire to live out his glory days. In his latest The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson takes his most head-on approach to the topic and it’s one of his most fun outings yet.
The film opens on a student leaving a set of keys on the grave of an author and begins reading the Author’s book, The Grand Budapest Hotel, the opening of which is narrated by the Author at the time he wrote it (Tom Wilkinson), remembering when he first heard the story at said hotel – played by Jude Law – from Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) recounting the story when he was younger – played by Tony Revolori. These multiple levels of memory do an excellent job of setting up the very Wes Anderson-world that exists through the majority of the film in that the multiple levels of narration allow for the style to exist – whimsy and all. The only true reality that exists is the snowy cemetery at the very beginning and very end of the film. The rest is merely the students’ interpretation of the book.
The majority of the film focuses on the aforementioned Zero starting a career as lobby boy/apprentice to Gustave H. (Ralph Finnes), the concierge at the famous Grand Budapest Hotel. Gustave is known as being a socialite who wines and dines the wealthy elderly women – particularly the blondes – who frequent the hotel. One of his favorite guests, Madame D. – Tilda Swinton in some amazing make-up – passes away. She leaves the priceless fictional painting “Boy With Apple,” to Gustave leaving her relatives, particularly her son Dimitri (Adrian Brody) furious. Gustave and Zero steal the painting, leaving Gustave as a prime suspect for murdering his former lover.
The rest of the film is a caper comedy following Gustave and Zero as they run from the police, Dimitri and his private investigator (Willem Dafoe) and later the German Army. Just as the film is about nostalgia, the script draws inspiration from other heist comedies like The Pink Panther series and Marx Brothers films. Anderson’s past films, particularly Tenenbaums, show a longing for a lifestyle and upper-class that was very rare or never existed. This is one of the main complaints laid by his critics but here it exists pure fiction and while the flaws of that time are ignored with a few references to the racism of the tim in the impending Nazi reach for power, this is also the film where Anderson acknowledges the danger of nostalgia. When Law’s writer asks the older Moustafa if Gustave was one of the last relics of a forgotten time, Moustafa acknowledges that Gustave’s was already part of forgotten time, in his prime.
Speaking of Gustave, it should be noted that Finnes proves he should be a permanent addition to Anderson’s regulars just as Edward Norton – he’s back as a Chief Police Inspector Henckles – did in Moonrise Kingdom. He has the comedic timing and delivery that highlights Anderson’s strengths as a writer and director. One example that sticks out is in the way Finnes and Anderson implement a meticulous use of profanity in the dialogue. Finnes delivers them in the same proprietary fashion as all of his lines making them as funny as anything in the film.
Also new to Anderson’s cast is Revoli as Zero. His characters’ nervousness is new for Anderson who usually writes characters – particularly children and teenagers – as being confident beyond reality. While he fits into Anderson’s swift dialogue and blocking, Young Zero is one of the most human characters he’s written since Max Fischer in Rushmore. That growth from Anderson, even if its incremental, goes a long way in Anderson’s worlds that are often muddled in their aesthetic and humor. It’s the ambition to face nostalgia and venture into new territory that makes the film worth facing.