Review by Noah Foster-Koth
The Grand Budapest Hotel, the latest in a series of bonkers arthouse films from director Wes Anderson, is so knotty and convoluted that merely explaining the premise is an undertaking. Essentially, Anderson’s latest project tells the story of a pair of hotel workers who go on the run after being accused of murder. The main hotel worker, Gustav H (Ralph Fiennes), had a love affair with the murder victim (Tilda Swinton), who rewrote her will so that he would receive her considerable fortune in the event of her death. Consequently, the victim’s evil family frame Gustav for the murder they committed, and Gustav is incarcerated. There’s no questioning the originality of the film’s premise. What’s questionable is how well that premise plays onscreen.
Ralph Fiennes is one of the few actors that makes each character he plays different from the last. He’s best known for his role as Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise, but Fiennes has the acting range to play more than just gnarly villains. He demonstrated this two years ago in Skyfall and does so again in Grand Budapest. Trouble is, his role as the hotel keep Gustav H isn’t all that compelling. The problem lies not in how Gustav is played, but how his character is written. True, his effeminate airs and lust for the finer things are sporadically funny. Gustav might be a great supporting character in another film; he’s not interesting enough to carry the whole picture on his own.
Theoretically, he doesn’t have to. Gustav is assisted by his loyal lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori, making his screen debut). The bond between Gustav and Zero is the emotional core of the film, yet it too doesn’t amount to much. Gustav alternates between gushing over Zero and treating him like nothing (although Zero is actually the boy’s given name, not a derogatory term). Neither behavior is funny or convincing.
The movie also incorporates a revolving door of star talent, with celebrities like Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Jude Law all making an appearance. All of these actors are great, but their tiny roles prevent any one of them from being particularly memorable. The exception is Willem Dafoe, whose role as a cold-blooded hit man provides the reason for Gustav and Zero to keep running. Dafoe’s character is a great Frankenstein impersonation.
Since this is a Wes Anderson film, every shot is geared for maximum visual decadence. The images are all colorful and quirky, but without a strong plot to unite them they vanish from memory like a mirage. Anderson’s gee-whiz imagery worked well in Fantastic Mr. Fox, but in his latest film they distract from the story rather than build on it. Grand Budapest isn’t devoid of good components (Alexandre Desplat’s score is excellent), but it doesn’t have enough enjoyable parts to warrant the remaining mediocrity. This is a case of sheer originality not adding up to great quality.