I had serious doubts about this movie. It looked weird, quirky, and that nudgy kind of funny that irritates like a fruit fly in the face. One minute in, however, and I was completely on board the fruit fly express. The Grand Budapest Hotel is funny in a sharp, refined way that teeters between a stiff upper lip and a cowboy getting drunk in a saloon. The cinematography and design place the film in a vintage-popup-book-like frame and create an artistic piece that is never sore on the eyes. For a combination of romantic poetry, visual creativity, and something that can only be described as “snappy pizzazz”, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a movie that is beautiful to watch, elegant to listen to, and a fun piece of escapism.
The movie starts with a grand hotel in its twilight years. The rooms are mostly vacant, save for a few loner guests, a writer (Jude Law), and one mysterious visitor who claims to be the owner. Over dinner this supposed owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), tells his story to the writer and throws us into the 1930s when The Grand Budapest was a hotspot for bored, wealthy Europeans. The undisputed centre of the hotel’s flurry was the concierge, Mr. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a man with flare, confidence, and a concrete knowledge of proper etiquette. Not long into the story, one of Gustave’s beloved guests suddenly dies, leaving him a priceless painting and her relatives nothing but a castle full of “worthless junk”. Along with his lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), Gustave springs into action to secure his new fortune and convince the family that he did not kill the old lady for her money.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is indeed quirky, but not in a cheesy, senseless sort of way. The cuts between scenes are sudden and very sharp, but rather than simply moving the story from one scene to the next this feeling of briskness is part of the whole story-telling experience. The pace is incredibly fast, the dialogue is quick, and the characters move like snapping fingers. Artistry plays a huge role here, with as many backdrops as possible looking like photoshopped brochure covers. Each set is arranged by the measurement of a ruler and set up like a pristine photograph before some character or other comes ploughing through it. The whole feel of The Grand Budapest Hotel is close to a late modern piece of art with little characters that hop between the pictures.
On top of the talents of Ralph Fiennes there are numerous cameos including Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, and Bill Murray, to name a few. I get the feeling that this was an extraordinarily fun movie to work on, with different stars showing up every day, dry humour at every turn, racing across the countryside in a desperate yet polite manner, and essentially playing caricatures of old-fashioned, highly opinionated, courteous snobs. The sort of people whose opening move is to compliment your nail polish before throwing your cat out the window with a well-mannered f* you.
Along with the visual beauty, the dialogue is an art in of itself. The script sounds like a poem, with flow, rhythm, tone, and carefully chosen diction. The dialogue plus the smooth, creative, and mentally unbalanced cast adds up to a bona fide piece of art. Ralph Fiennes never misses a beat (and with dialogue that complex there are plenty of beats to miss) and he succeeds in turning the most ridiculous sentence into a sonnet. The only real out of place character in this painted circus is Edward Norton. He plays a soldier intent on tracking down the illusive Mr. Gustave and bringing him to justice, but Norton’s performance just feels out of time. Like a hologram in a pop-up book.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is fun to watch because everything is just slightly left of centre. The framing of the scenes is so perfect it feels fake, and the characters are wearing so many layers of etiquette they crack ever so slightly under the weight – but just as Alice in Wonderland was a hit for being weird, so too is The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s beautiful to watch and listen to for the artsy viewer but it’s also steeped in ridiculous hilarity for the rest of us. 9/10.
The Grand Budapest Hotel trailer.