Movie Review: 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' is a storybook come to vivid life

For the News-DemocratMarch 20, 2014 

What It's About

Oh, to live in Wes Anderson's fantastical, frosted fairy-tale, symmetrical world for nearly two hours. How lucky are we to see such a singular vision brought to glorious cinematic style with elegance, grace and good humor? I want to see the splendid "The Grand Budapest Hotel" again and again.

Nobody thinks like writer-director Wes Anderson, and that's fertile ground for art -- he soars with magical ideas that create an alternate universe we want to inhabit, as if he's a real Willy Wonka. Just like he did with "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Moonrise Kingdom," the eccentric Anderson creates a heightened-reality world, where things may be peculiar, but are much better than their regular counterparts. And yet another star-studded cast -- filled with regulars and stand-out newscomers -- has a ball presenting this precise, distinct point of view.

We're transported back to the grandeur of a posh hotel in a fictional European place -- Zubrowka, somewhere in the Alps, in two different eras. First we are in its glamorous Old World zenith in 1932, when dapper concierge Gustave (a sublime Ralph Fiennes) pampered guests and ran a tight ship, with impeccable manners -- when he's not swearing like a sailor or wooing the wealthy female patrons. He takes Lobby Boy Zero Moustafa (a marvelous debut by Tony Revolori) under his wing. They become embroiled in a murder-mystery and a caper involving a Renaissance painting.

This literate, entertaining story written by Anderson and Hugo Guinness is told in flashback in 1968 by a grown-up Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), now a multi-millionaire. The hotel is shabbier, a shell of its former glory, and at dinner, he confides in an author (Jude Law), who is played by Tom Wilkinson during a present day foreword.

While Anderson's imagination has run wild again, nevertheless with his trademark control evident, the movie is a well-constructed farce that's reminiscent of Marx Brothers and Ernst Lubitch golden-age comedies. There is a tremendous aura of finesse that's just delightful to witness.

Performances

Ralph Fiennes smiles! Oscar nominee Fiennes, who has built a critically-acclaimed career out of playing brooding, tortured upper-crust gentlemen, is sensational as the refined Gustave. With comic flair and palpable joy, he gives another performance worthy of award nominations.

As surprising as his turn is, the debut of Tony Revolori, who fits right into the madness, is another pleasure. An unrecognizable Tilda Swinton plays the dowager whose will sparks an escalating feud. And there is fine work from the Anderson repertory players, mostly in cameos -- Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton -- as well as the capable newbies Jude Law and F. Murray Abraham. Try not to laugh at creepy thug Willem Dafoe or tattooed Harvey Keitel having such fun in those roles.

What Works

Everything comes together in perfect harmony -- the production design is a sumptuous visual feast, a storybook come to vivid life, and the costumes superbly capture a time, place and mood. The cinematography is stunning, and the story has a breezy pace.

The script's polite and flowery prose is music to my ears, and the reverence for the written word is very much apparent. With charming deadpan performances and a thrilling toboggan ride, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" has captured my fancy. I hope Anderson's unique stamp will be embraced by not just his devoted fans, but moviegoers eager for something different.

What Doesn't Work

From its dainty confections to its sly subtle jokes, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is sheer perfection. There isn't anything out of place, and its charms are so many, this one is leaping to the top of the best lists, and it's only March.

This is the first must-see movie of the year.

4 stars out of 4

Director: Wes Anderson

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Adrian Brody, Tilda Swinton, Willem Dafoe, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Lea Seydoux, Saoirse Ronan Length:

Rated: R for language, some sexual content and violence

Length: 1:40

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