The Grand Budapest Hotel: Dial W for whimsy

Just to get the formalities out of the way, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a shaggy dog story — rather, a shaggy drawing story. Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the titular establishment, inherits a priceless painting that goes by the name of... Boy with Apple, which sounds like someone’s tongue-in-cheek homage to Girl with a Pearl Earring. That someone, of course, is director Wes Anderson, whose every frame is varnished with drollery.

If the word ‘droll’ didn’t exist, it would need to be minted for the Wes Anderson oeuvre. Just about everything is fair game – from a defenestrated Persian cat to a decapitated head in a laundry basket (which sounds like it should be the subject of its own painting). Like the Coens, Anderson sees jokes where we least expect them. A CPR procedure. The forensic analysis of a corpse with missing fingers. Diseases named ‘Scribe’s Fever’ and ‘Persian Grippe’. But none of this comes across as misanthropic. So deft is Anderson’s touch that we — at least, those of us who are fans — laugh affectionately instead of recoiling with horror. Midway through the film, we get a scene that could serve as a metaphor for why we give Anderson a free pass. A prison guard is inspecting goods being delivered to inmates. First up is a loaf of bread. He slices it with a knife to ensure that it’s just a loaf of bread. Then comes a block of cheese. He pokes and prods. Next, a daintily beribboned box of pastries. He opens it, takes a look at the artisanal contents, exquisitely coloured and crafted, looking just so. It’d be a shame to eat these things, let alone slice and dice them up. He moves on to the next item. Fans treat Anderson’s films the same way. While we may pick apart the work of other filmmakers for imagined crimes, we do not have the heart to take a knife to his scrumptious work.

And he rewards our indulgence with a bounty of riches — right from the first frame, where a girl visits a cemetery. She walks up to the bust of an author whom the film calls, well, Author. And below this bust are keys, like you’d find behind the reception desk in a hotel. And slowly the story is unlocked. The girl holds a book by Author. We segue to a flashback with Author (Tom Wilkinson) who leads us to another flashback that features him as a young man (Jude Law), who leads us to a further flashback about the shadow of some kind of Nazism falling over Gustave H and his May-December bromance with a young lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori).

We hear that name and purr with pleasure, awaiting the comic gold Anderson will mine from it. Sure enough, Gustave H interviews Zero and finds out that his education is... zero, his experience... zero. But the real punch line arrives when Zero falls for Agatha (Saoirse Ronan). Her name is no accident. It had to begin with an A – only then could Zero’s note to her end with the dedication ‘From Z to A’.

If that sounds like a spoiler, don’t frown – there’s plenty more where that came from. What’s new about Zero is that he’s a person of colour. Not just a brightly turbaned Sikh, not just exotic wallpaper; he’s one of the leads. And his tragic back story shocks Gustave H out of his privileged cocoon of perfume and poetry which is, really, Anderson’s cocoon, filled with people with first-world problems. This, perhaps, explains the end-of-an-era wistfulness and the copious bloodshed, at least for this filmmaker.

But the mood is still Andersonian, so the blood doesn’t quite stick. This is a whimsical comedy, after all — though at some point it morphs into a Hitchcockian innocent-man-on-the-run thriller. The fun in these portions comes from seeing classic Hitchcock scenes refracted through Anderson’s prism. The prison escape is funny, the climactic shootout funnier, and the funniest thing is watching the superlative cast keep a straight face throughout.

The Anderson repertory company is present in full force (Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson), but it’s the newcomers who stand out – Revolori, an energetic Fiennes, Tilda Swinton as an eccentric grande dame and especially Willem Dafoe as an assassin with a prognathic jaw who comes off like Dracula playing a dapper gangster. As I said, there will be blood.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Genre: Well, a ‘Wes Anderson movie’

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Edward Norton

Storyline: A coveted painting instigates much mayhem

Bottomline: Simply delightful

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 1:51:33 AM |

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