Starting with the extremely low-budget heist comedy “Bottle Rocket,” the 1996 film that also introduced Anderson’s best friend Owen Wilson to the movie world as his star and co-writer, each of Anderson’s films have taken great leaps of scale in their worlds and subject matter. This weekend, his most epic work yet – “The Grand Budapest Hotel” – hits theatres (in limited release, expanding nationwide over the next month), and he’s hit a homer by giving himself free creative rein with the first screenplay he’s ever penned fully solo.
Anderson loves to pretend his movies are adaptations of books that don’t actually exist, and that is the case again here. “Budapest” begins with a Young Writer (Jude Law) interviewing the hotel’s owner, Mr. Moustafa, about how he rose from the ranks of junior lobby boy to become the proprietor of the Grand Budapest – a series of events that came about from his long-ago status as an assistant to its legendary concierge, Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes).
The main action is kicked into gear with the sudden and mysterious death of an 84-year-old countess named Madame D (Tilda Swinton), with whom Gustave has been carrying on a secret affair amongst his many sexual exploits. A battle over her vast fortune ensues, as Gustave has been named an heir and the Madame’s son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) leads the charge to stop Gustave from getting a dime.
Dmitri and his henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe) frame Gustave for Madame D’s death and have him shipped to a prison of muscle-bound killers and a moat filled with crocodiles. Gustave has to break free and team up with both Zero – the young version of Mr. Moustafa – and a secret society that includes Bill Murray to clear his name and win what is rightfully his.
That’s only the half of it, as the movie then kicks into high absurdist gear, with Anderson engaging in wild action sequences for the first time in his career, bringing cartoonish chases between snowmobiles and sleds racing down ski slopes to life. And yet “Budapest” never loses its whimsical heart, as production designer Adam Stockhausen brings every location and costume to vibrant life with vivid colors and humorously detailed costume designs.
It is in the absurd details throughout that Anderson’s movie really shines. He and Hugo Guinness, who conceived the storyline with Anderson before he took over the actual script, ambitiously weave a tale that has countless parallels to the history of 1930s Europe, with spoofs of the Nazis and secret societies.
Anderson has noted that he decided to take this boldest of career leaps thus far due to the influence of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer. At the height of his literary career, in the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most famous writers in the world.
Zweig specialized in characters searching for personal freedom against encroaching governmental authority as the Nazis rose to power. Similarly moved by the rampant release of news stories of NSA surveillance and other government abuses in our own time, Anderson has crafted a parable that not only awes the eyes but surprisingly moves the mind.
While “Budapest” does feature about 20 F-words, they are delivered in over-the-top comedic fashion, when the normally fastidious and decorous Gustave is driven to frustration, snaps angrily, and quickly gets his emotional bearings back. While not justifying the use of the language to those offended by it, it is also important to note that the tone with the language is absurd rather than truly hateful or prurient.
The numerous innuendoes referencing Gustave’s many affairs – including a comically angry rant in which a character uses anti-gay slurs against him while falsely accusing him of sleeping with both men and women – are also delivered with a ludicrous comical tone, although viewers should still be cautious if easily offended. The strongest offensive element lies in a brief flashback implying an old woman performing oral sex on Gustave, and she is seen topless with her breasts exposed as well. He is also falsely accused of bisexual behavior by an enemy, who unleashes a string of anti-homosexual terms against him.
Yet despite these elements, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” retains a core of sweetness, as the vast majority of the movie focuses on Gustave’s misadventures rather than the sexual comments and their shenanigans.
As you can already see, nearly every role is played by a movie star and often one with an Oscar nomination or statue to boot, with F. Murray Abraham, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Tom Wilkinson and Jason Schwartzman rounding out the cast. Pulling that level of talent together and still finding a way to let each of them shine without stepping on each other’s toes is an accomplishment in itself.
For adult audiences who are not easily offended by sporadic comedic depictions and discussions of sexual behavior, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” remains a richly inventive and entertaining movie.
Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site Movieguide.org, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for Esquire.com and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site www.radiotitans.com, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by www.talkers.com and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.