Sunday, December 14, 2014

"Take Your Hands Off My Lobby Boy!" The Grand Budapest Hotel Delights with Eccentric Characters

Hotel Lobby Boy Zero (Tony Revolori), Madame D (Tilda Swinton), and the Grand Budapest's gentleman Concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), ride the hotel's Elevator.

Few things about Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) are as captivating as the main character, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), Concierge of the titular hotel. He runs the place with precision, attention to detail, and a gentleman's touch. Indeed, M. Gustave's gentlemanly manner and old school way of treating others with the utmost respect and kindness is what wins you over within The Grand Budapest Hotel's first half hour. 

Of course this wouldn't be a Wes Anderson movie if that were all there was to M. Gustave's character — and it isn't. The serious professional gentleman is complimented by the dandy who sleeps with many of the hotel's wealthy, elderly female guests (and possibly a few of the men — Gustave's sexuality is a running joke throughout). As he says to the villainous son of one such guest, "I go to bed with all my friends." Then M. Gustave gets his lights punched out. 

Madame D (Tilda Swinton) is one such guest receiving the friends with benefits treatment. The movie's plot pivots on her untimely death from poisoning. To Gustave she bequeaths Boy with Apple, a priceless painting, and perhaps a great deal more. Her evil son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) won't part with the painting willingly and decides to frame M. Gustave for his mother's murder.

What follows is a madcap adventure that sees M. Gustave go to prison. His escape is aided by Gustave's friend and loyal Lobby Boy Zero Mustafa. Then it's a race for both their lives from Jopling (Willem Dafoe), Dmitri's sinister henchman. All of this action is recalled by a much older Zero (F. Murray Abraham) in a now drab and Communist-esque Grand Budapest that is barely a shadow of its 1930s glory days. 

This is another key to The Grand Budapest Hotel's charm. The narrative is a story within a story, within yet another story. The effect is like taking apart a Matryoshka Nesting Doll - and it makes for a very satisfying viewing experience. Given that the bulk of this story takes place in the 1930s inside the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, there's a lot going on outside Anderson's colour filled and action packed frames.

Namely the Nazis taking power and spreading their sinister tentacles outside of Germany's borders. They occasionally do enter the story in the form of 'ZZ' troops who at one point take over the Grand Budapest in what you can only assume is an occupation. Of course Madame D's villain son is in league with these thugs. In one of the film's best action sequences there is a shootout inside the hotel which is temporarily stopped by Henckels (Edward Norton), a policeman demanding to know who is shooting at whom, and why. 

As in all of Wes Anderson's films any atmospheric darkness is lightened by the characters - eccentrics, misfits, curious explorers, and in the case of M. Gustave a hilarious, lovable protagonist who steals every scene he's in. (Such as on a train - when ZZ troops attempt to arrest Zero, M. Gustave declares with naive decency: "You can't arrest him simply because he's a bloody immigrant.")

In the movie's best punchline M. Gustave delivers a pastry from Mendl's, the Grand Budapest's bakery, to his fellow inmates. To divide the sugary confection into prisoner sized portions he asks, "who's got the throat slitter?" It's a credit to Anderson that he manages to turn something so dark into a 'ha ha' moment. He does so beautifully. 

If you're short of quality movies to watch this holiday season make sure to add The Grand Budapest Hotel to your list. The physical comedy, wordplay, characters, and unique setting stamp this as a Wes Anderson movie — one of his best so far. Like The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012) he creates a warm and loving family dynamic within a crew of misfit characters. These characters stay in your mind long after the credits have rolled. It's this warm, humanist vision that makes Anderson a great director, and his movies treasures that anyone who loves well-told stories should watch.

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