Film director Wes Anderson is a funny kind of national treasure. He makes movies even middle-aged people will like. They are quirky movies, movies rich in color and images, movies with plots that take wild detours, movies with lots of recognizable stars. Movies with complete endings. Entertaining movies.
Consider this list of some of his films: “Rushmore,” “Bottle Rocket,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and “Moonrise Kingdom” which is, so far at least, his greatest achievement. His new film is now in the local twelve-plex. It is called “Grand Budapest Hotel.”
It’s a hoot.
“GBH” resembles “Moonrise Kingdom,” at least in its form—each of them is about a pursued escape. If the new film isn’t drenched in unnatural but sympathetic color the way “MK” was, “GBH” features even more notable actors: the great Ralph Fiennes, Bill Murray, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Saoirse Ronan, Owen Wilson, and at least a half dozen more.
The film is self-conscious in Anderson’s odd but charming way. It has on-screen chapter headings. It is the experience of a young central European woman reading a book by a national hero who met a man who told him the story that makes up the bulk of the action—a story in a story in a story. And the on-screen format pushes in the margins so that the projected image, for most of the film, is closer to square than is customary in a movie theater.
Anderson, who co-wrote the story (basing it on Austrian Stefan Zweig’s writing) and wrote the screenplay, uses his sort of low-tech animation to set scenes, and favors establishing sequences where the approaching vehicle disappears for a last turn before arriving at its destination.
He also likes to suggest the buildings he is using are massive and asymmetrical, and he suggests riches by using wood-paneled rooms. I loved the contrast between the ancient (luxurious) and modern (utilitarian) versions of the hotel. The pastries and baker’s boxes, too, are perfect examples of Anderson’s love of fanciful visual detail.
The story follows Fiennes’s character, the hotel’s head porter. He takes tactful care of all of his residents’ needs, to the point of fulfilling the physical desires of his old lady customers. One of them, the wealthy Madame D. (Tilda Swinton made up to within an inch of her life) dies. The porter, M. Gustave, is left a valuable painting which he and his young “Lobby Boy” take from the old woman’s home and hide.
The woman’s family, represented by a huffy Brody and three Richard Gorey style sisters, want to keep the painting. In fact, there is a second will that leaves everything to M. Gustave if Madame D. is murdered, which she is. But Brody destroys that will, no knowing there is a second copy. Even M. Gustave doesn’t know the second copy is in his possession.
A European war is impending. Edward Norton is in command of the ridiculously costumed military police, who arrest M. Gustave and Lobby Boy and throw them into a huge, internally-complicated old prison to await trial as the murderers. But the porter has friends he has earned through his self-invented ideal life of service. These friends and Lobby Boy’s fiancee, baker’s girl Agatha (Ronan), help our heroes to escape, at least for a while.
The events of the story happen at a furious pace, and Fiennes imitates the rate, language (some of it rough), and emotional responses of an American, not a stock Central European. Perhaps I should note that Anderson is a Texan. His stories are set to provide him with the visual backgrounds he needs more than to give him established foreign conventions to work with.
This is part of the charm of “Grand Budapest Hotel” (named after a hotel that is not in Hungary) and of most of his other films: they are unapologetic American movies made without paying respect to the conventions of Hollywood films or pre-war European literature. Anderson’s movies are original items, films well worth seeing in a movie theater. Movies to look forward to.