Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Grand Illusions at the Grand Budapest Hotel

Airplanes are disappearing from our skies. Sovereign nations are splitting in two. The weather continues to be weird, and the other morning I was shaken and stirred by a 4.4 earthquake. No wonder we moviegoers are feeling nostalgic about the past.

Which perhaps is part of the appeal of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. An elderly relative of mine jumped to the conclusion that this new film was a reworking of Grand Hotel.  That 1932 ensemble classic (based on a bestselling novel) was set in a luxurious Berlin hostelry; it featured such MGM superstars as John Barrymore as a dissolute aristocrat, Greta Garbo as an aging ballerina, Lionel Barrymore as a dying accountant, and Joan Crawford as an ambitious stenographer. New York’s Waldorf-Astoria is still proud of the fact that a remake-of-sorts, Week-End at the Waldorf, was filmed on its premises in 1945. Eventually Neil Simon was to use a similar premise – that of criss-crossing lives in a sumptuous public place—for his Plaza Suite and California Suite comedies. Grand Hotel, by whatever name, reinforces our sense of hotels as romantic venues where a wide array of folk come together and drift apart.

It’s certainly true that the always inventive Wes Anderson is playing upon these assumptions. His grand hotel, set in the fictional Mittel-European Republic of Zubrowka, is a pink wedding cake of a place. In the 1930s, when most of the film is set, its lobby is filled with the powerful, the wealthy, and the beautiful, all of them nibbling exquisite pastries that arrive daily in cunning little pink boxes tied with ribbons. Elegantly presiding over the scene is Monsieur Gustav H., concierge extraordinaire, who is viewed with awe by Zero Mustafa, lowly lobby boy and immigrant from somewhere in the murky Middle East. Although the adventures of Zero and Monsieur Gustav eventually involve murder, theft, and incarceration, we can be forgiven for seeing their life-or-death  escapades through Anderson’s dreamy haze, which encompasses the Grand Budapest Hotel and everyone who enters its portals.

Wes Anderson has made films about insular clans before. I’m thinking particularly of The Royal Tenenbaums, where the eccentric members of one extended family were on vivid display. I found that film clever, but ultimately unsatisfying. Who cared, after all was said and done, about all those wealthy, talented, discontented people, even if they were played by interesting, quirky personalities like Gene Hackman, Anjelica Houston, Ben Stiller, and Owen Wilson?

What’s special about The Grand Budapest Hotel is the way it sets its tight little world against the forces of history. Though the film’s style of framing and pacing makes it consistently hilarious, reality keeps intruding in subtle ways. Like Zero’s offhand reference to the fact that back in his home country he was tortured, and his father assassinated, in the course of some nameless little war. And the creeping forces of Fascism that keep rearing their ugly heads each time our heroes board a train. By the time we’ve finished with the central story line, the movie has shifted to black and white, and the charming, carefree old ways are gone forever.

But we’re not allowed to be sad. Those stalwart souls who stick around for the whole of the long, lo-o-o-ng credit roll will be treated to some cheery balalaika music, accompanying an odd little dancing figure who dispels any sort of gloom. And with such familiar faces as Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, and Harvey Keitel popping up at odd moments, life in Wes Anderson’s world truly feels like a cabaret. 

It’s a treat to study the website of this film, which includes a link to the purely hypothetical  
Zubrowka Film Commission. Zubrowka, we are told, “offers a grand destination featuring a film-friendly community, luxurious locations, and free production space.”    


  1. The trailers make the film appear particularly accessible, which I don't always find to be the case with this filmmaker's output. I might be seeing this one when it is available at my home theater.

  2. I'm not always a Wes Anderson fan, but here he's at his best, I think.