This movie is no simple matter to describe — It’s a character-driven historical drama, a madcap murder mystery, a prison escape, and a wonderfully charming but inexplicable buddy movie between the punctilious concierge of a grand hotel and his naïve protégé. There are secret societies, chanting monks, conniving criminals, lusty pastry chefs, and rich, elderly blonde dowagers. There’s a greedy son with a big nose, an evil-eyed terminator, a gruesome beheading, and a growing number of humorless Nazis.
There’s genteel behavior you want to emulate and barbaric cruelty you wish you could forget. There’s sweet teenage love and happy sex among friends. There are magnificent vintage automobiles piled high with luggage, first class trains, prison buses, speeding motorcycles, and a mountainside tram that looks like it came from a fairy tale.
Mostly the movie has the grandest European hotel ever seen on film—a total fantasy creation that comes alive with a meticulous attention to color, costumes, settings and endless charm. (The prop list on this movie had to number in the thousands, requiring a veritable army of checklist makers to keep it in order.) Overseeing this extraordinary place and its legion of workers is a legendary concierge, known simply as Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes in his most enchanting role). The movie, of course, is The Grand Budapest Hotel, a high-class, crowd-pleasing tribute to nostalgia, from the wildly imaginative talents of director Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom).
People call Hotel a comedy, and it certainly does have many funny scenes, even moments of hilarity – but it is also heart-breakingly sad. I was depressed for days afterwards. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to see the film again, and it also doesn’t mean I’m not recommending that everyone see it – what it means is that the film is not a laugh-athon–it’s extremely complex, and you should be prepared to remember that one of the main themes of this film is the Nazi take-over of Europe. With all due respect to Mel Brooks and The Producers, it’s hard to make Adolf Hitler’s goons funny.
Hotel begins in modern day. An elderly writer, Tom Wilkinson, is talking to the camera, almost as if he is the Austrian author Stefan Zweig (1861-1942), who was, during his time, one of the most popular writers in the world. It was upon his stories that director Anderson based his movie.
The Writer takes us back in time to the 1960s, when the Young Writer is played by Jude Law, who finds himself a guest in a once-famous luxury hotel in the fictional Alpine country of Zubrowka. Over a long dinner, the Young Writer learns the strange and amazing tale of how Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abramson), once an orphan refugee from an unnamed Middle Eastern country, came to be the owner of the hotel. In essence, Mr. Moustafa’s tale is the story of his remarkable friendship with the concierge, M. Gustave.
M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) is finicky, fastidious, over-perfumed, the paragon of a service provider to high society clientele, who also happens to gallantly service the elderly female guests who flock to the hotel. So what if he’s really gay? M. Gustave doesn’t pursue men, per se, other than treat them kindly and with appreciation when they are kind. He’s not really sexual so much as merely wanting to make everyone feel good about themselves.
M. Gustave takes under his wing the new lobby boy. He’s named Zero (Tony Revolori), possibly because he has zero experience, zero family and zero prospects. Zero idolizes M. Gustave and is thrilled to become the older man’s constant companion.
Madame D. (unrecognizable Tilda Swinton), an outrageously wealthy and very old woman, is aggrieved that she has to separate from her dear M. Gustave. Shortly after coming home to her palatial mansion, she dies. M. Gustave with Zero in tow, rushes to her side in the casket, where she looks so good he is envious of the face cream the funeral home used on her and wants it for himself.
Madame D’s attorney (Jeff Goldblum in his best role in ages), reads Madame D’s will, in which she gives M. Gustave a horrid but valuable painting called “Boy with an Apple.” Her children, including the villainous son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), are furious. Dmitri calls M. Gustave a “fruit” and punches him when Ms. Gustave admits having sex with Dmitri’s mother. After all, he says politely, “I sleep with all my friends.”
Madame D’s butler, Serge X (Matthieu Almaric) tries to tell M. Gustave about a second will, but there’s no time before M. Gustave and Zero take possession of the painting and skedaddle back home and hide it in the hotel safe. The police (Edward Norton) arrive and accuse M. Gustave of murdering Madame D.
Meanwhile Zero falls madly in love with Agatha (Saiorse Ronan), a pastry chef from the village. Off to prison goes our hapless hero, M. Gustave, where he’s in charge of dishing out the daily slop from the food tray. A hardened criminal, Ludwig (Harvey Keitel), and his cohorts, invite M. Gustave to join them in their elaborate (and deadly) prison escape.
Meanwhile Dmitri has his leather-gloved henchman, Willem Dafoe, traveling all over looking for Serge X who has disappeared for his own safety. When M. Gustave breaks out of prison, thanks to the digging tools that Agatha hid in gifts of pastry, he and Zero rush around trying to escape everyone who’s chasing them.
In one of the most hilarious scenes in the movie, the many members of the secret society of concierges all over Europe band together to give succor to M. Gustave and Zero. More zaniness and finally M. Gustave is cleared of the murder charge, the second will of Madame D. is discovered (giving M. Gustave her entire estate – which includes the surprise ownership of the hotel), and Zero and Agatha get married. And the three of them, Zero, Agatha, and M. Gustav, set off on a happy vacation. But this train ride is different from the previous ones. Now the country they are traveling through has been taken over by the Third Reich and everyone has to show their traveling papers…
And I’ll leave it at that.
Back to modern day and Mr. Moustafa’s tale is over, a tear falls from his eye and the Young Writer goes on to his next hotel, never to return to the Grand Budapest again.
Do see The Grand Budapest Hotel and be sure to see it on the big screen—the movie is so lush with detail that only a big screen can do it justice.