Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson
Director: Wes Anderson (with that call sheet, who else?)
Oscar History: 9 nominations/4 wins (Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Costume*, Film Editing, Makeup & Hairstyling*, Original Score*, Production Design*, Original Screenplay)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars
(Spoilers Ahead) I think what sets this particular Wes Anderson film apart from most of his other work, and why I think I liked the actual plot of the film better than almost any others (Moonrise gets more points for its characters, but cannot sustain its promise as long as Grand Budapest) is that it spends considerably less time trying to be an ensemble. The movie does have a series of very distinct characters, and all of the Anderson cast is there (save for Anjelica Huston-what happened there, why is she not making appearances in his films anymore?), but they aren’t the principle characters. This is, in fact, the tale of two men: Zero (played as a boy by Revolori, as a man by Abraham), and M. Gustave H (Fiennes). Both men have their own set of personal baggage which we understand as the film unfolds, and as a result of this stronger central vision Anderson manages to make a more personal-feeling film, one where we actually connect with the two lead characters in a stronger way than most of his past pictures.
I am thinking this particularly about Gustave H, a Wes Anderson creation if there ever was one: a bit of a fop, he spends his days running a luxury hotel like it’s the Pentagon and wooing his many wealthy aging patrons. The most important of these is Madame D (Tilda Swinton in some hilarious old-age makeup), whom we learn as the film ends was the enigmatic owner of the Grand Budapest (a mystery that everyone solved relatively early in the film), and their chemistry throughout the opening scenes is pretty delicious, which is important since her death/murder is what sustains the plot as we move about a series of elaborate winter-covered luxury hotels across a mythical land named Zubrowka.
The film’s best parts involve Fiennes (really wonderful in this role-he’s always so good though), so frequently unaware of what is happening around him that when he occasionally has a genuine moment with his young apprentice Zero it throws off the audience in a most alarming and real way. I love the moments where he defends Zero against the oppressive military, both times played for comic effect but there’s a real sense of morality that comes from Fiennes’ Gustave that proves that he’s not just a silly man, but a man who is aware of the importance of friendship and companionship as one gets older, and shows the deep value he puts on friendship.
The film, in my opinion, needed more of this Gustave-style realism. The latter half hour of the film works the best not because we’ve seen the silliness of the film and it’s coming to a compelling close, but because we get a few unexpected wrenches thrown at us (think of the end of American Graffiti for a strong comparison). Gustave H’s need to protect Zero costs him his life in the face of a brutal dictatorship. Zero grew up to be a near copy of Gustave in that he lives his entire life for his hotel, giving up his fortune to keep it standing, and that he never got to spend his life with Agatha.
It’s worth noting that the Agatha story doesn’t work. Saoirse Ronan’s character doesn’t get enough to do and while the film for-the-most-part navigates the there’s-more-to-this-story script without leaving huge gaps, I felt that the Agatha story was a bit too small for us to get the significance of Zero keeping the hotel for her rather than for Gustave.
Still, though, this is a wonderfully complicated movie that sticks with you long after you leave the theater (or turn off the Netflix, as it were), and I have to say, is probably the best film that Anderson has made so far. If this is the direction he’s headed, I’m aboard the train (which will undoubtedly be conducted by Owen Wilson).