Movie review: Book a room at ‘The Grand Budapest’

Director Wes Anderson spins a colorful look at yesteryear that melds physical hilarity, melancholy

Contributing writerMarch 21, 2014 

Ralph Fiennes, left, and Tony Revolori star in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

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“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a total delight.

It’s a delight for the eye, a rainbow confection of dazzling colors: startling crimson, astonishing orange, deepest purple.

It’s a delight for the ear with its scintillating, rapid-fire dialogue.

It’s a delight for the funny bone, a showcase of the kind of wonderfully choreographed physical comedy that reached its zenith with the Marx Brothers. In “Budapest Hotel,” those heights of hilarity are scaled once more.

But there’s something else here as well in this latest picture from the uniquely talented writer-director Wes Anderson, and that’s an overhang of melancholy that haunts even its funniest moments.

This is a movie, after all, that opens in the mid-1980s, an era when the hotel is no longer grand but rather a sad, drab shadow of its former self, destined for the wrecking ball. Then back the picture goes to 1968 where vestiges of the old glamour remain. Finally we’re back in 1932, the heyday of its multihued glory. In that day, from the outside, the Grand Budapest resembles nothing so much as a pink-frosted layer cake. And inside it’s like a palace, with deep-red carpets and the grandest of grand staircases on which many a chase are staged.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the jewel of the make-believe nation of Zubrowka, a quaint realm set in deepest Mitteleuropa, land of picturesque mountains and elaborate pastries (pastries that no doubt inspired the architect of the Grand Budapest).

Presiding over the place is its concierge Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), a man of charm, poise and ambiguous sexuality. Or as Monsieur Gustave H himself proclaims, “I go to bed with all of my friends.”

Gustave H is the role of a lifetime for Fiennes. The character is by turns imperious, congenial, refined, vulgar and vain. Also philosophical, with a decidedly jaundiced view of humankind, which he calls “this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.”

Fiennes inhabits all those aspects brilliantly, but what’s truly revelatory is his gift for physical comedy. He and Anderson have concocted several priceless scenes in which Gustave H finds himself in situations of personal peril. In such moments a pregnant pause descends as he takes time to think over his predicament, carefully considers his options and then, in one of his funniest scenes, suddenly turns tail and scampers away, coattails flapping in a kind of Grouchoesque semicrouch with the authorities in hot pursuit.

Gustave H is at the center of a cuckoo rococo plot involving a naive lobby boy played with a wonderfully deadpan manner by Tony Revolori; the lobby boy’s sweetheart, a pastry chef played by Saoirse Ronan with a birthmark on her cheek in the form of a map of Mexico; a dowager countess played by Tilda Swinton in jaw-dropping old-age makeup; a homicidal maniac played by Willem Dafoe with alarming gaps in his death’s head grin; and a whole lot of other players, including such Anderson regulars as Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody, all in decorative facial hair.

A contested inheritance, a purloined painting, a daft prison break and a wild shootout are all part of the fun. But over it all hovers the knowledge that, as this is a precarious period between two great wars, the fun is soon to be swept away in “this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.”

Enjoy it while it lasts, “Budapest” seems to be saying, because it won’t last long.

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