By Alistair Ryder (@YesItsAlistair)
Up until recently, I thought that Wes Anderson’s directorial style was best suited to TV adverts, which he directs more prolifically than feature films. At 30 seconds a time he could display his keen visual sensibilities without having to worry about creating, developing or making the audience even care about the characters on screen- like many people, I wasn’t a fan of his films due to the emphasis on style over substance. His previous film, “Moonrise Kingdom” changed this; it didn’t exactly give substance over style, this is a Wes Anderson film after all, but it did manage to equal it, resulting in one of my favourite films of 2012.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is the first time that I have ever eagerly anticipated a new Wes Anderson film, and naturally I became incredibly worried that “Moonrise Kingdom” was a fluke and that this was going to be a return to his usual directorial self. I needn’t have worried- the film is his funniest and most visually accomplished yet in its recreation of crap special effects from the early studio pictures of Hollywood.
Ralph Fiennes stars as M. Gustave, a concierge at the titular hotel who ends up on the run with his lobby boy Zero (played by newcomer Tony Revolori, who I hope to see in more films in the near future) after an elderly patriarch (an unrecognisable Tilda Swinton, one of the film’s plethora of cameos) jettisons her entire family to bequeath him the priceless “Boy with Apple” painting after her sudden and mysterious death that he is wrongly accused of.
Although Ralph Fiennes is indisputably one of the greatest actors alive, he’s never better than when in comedic roles. To date, my favourite performance of his is gangster boss Harry in Martin McDonagh’s black comedy “In Bruges”, and like that film, “Budapest Hotel” realizes that Fiennes is never funnier than when he’s swearing. No human being alive can utter curse words as brilliantly as Fiennes can; writing down any of his sweary quotes from the film don’t do justice to the sheer magnitude of how they sound tumbling out of his mouth.
As with all Wes Anderson films, it’s impossible to mention every famous face that appears in the film, with everybody from Jude Law to (surprise, surprise) Bill Murray making brief appearances. The best of these roles is Willem Defoe as J.G. Jopling, who is every bit the human equivalent of the rat Defoe voiced in Anderson’s career nadir “Fantastic Mr Fox”. In the carefree universe of Wes Anderson, his character feels almost out of place, delivering the first act of serious violence in any of his films (not counting the dog who got stabbed with “lefty scissors” in Moonrise), yet also managing to manoeuvre the narrative into areas that allow for Anderson to take full advantage of his visual sensibilities (the Ski chase scene and the final shootout sequence may be the most fun you’ll have in a cinema all year).
Despite the sheer enjoyment of the film, it does fundamentally remain a case of style over substance, but due to its firm positioning in the caper genre (where character isn’t everything) this doesn’t become a problem. In fact, the film’s weakest moments are when it attempts to get the audience invested- the “wrap-around” sequences of an older Zero narrating the story to Jude Law fall flat, only serving the purpose of making the plot synopsis harder to write.
At a time when Judd Apatow, and his focus on improvisational comedy over sticking to the script, is Hollywood’s go-to funnyman, a film like “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is sorely needed. It’s not overlong, it isn’t (and here’s something I never thought I’d say about a Wes Anderson film) self-indulgent, and the comedy is timed to perfection. Even the bits that seem improvised (Jason Schwartzman appearing to accidentally wander into the frame behind Jude Law, before running away) will have been storyboarded and timed to within an inch of their life.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a delightful film, and one that highlights where Wes went wrong in the past- as long as you make the script funny, the lack of emotional investment isn’t a problem.