I’ll admit it — I have never been a Wes Anderson fan. Though I have tried everything from the classic The Royal Tenenbaums to the eccentric The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou to the more recent Moonrise Kingdom, I have left each viewing with the same feeling — slightly charmed by and appreciative of Anderson’s highly unusual aesthetic, but mostly mystified by what all the fuss is about.
I went into The Grand Budapest Hotel, then, with some hesitation. The movie is characteristically Anderson. It’s engaging. It’s charming. It has Anderson’s particular quirky touch. And as usual, I couldn’t tell what the point of all of it was — at least at first.
Based on the writings of author Stefan Zweig, Budapest is a story within a story within a story, all revolving around an unnamed author’s encounter with a stranger in the fictional Grand Budapest Hotel. It starts with a woman at the author’s grave, cracking open a book based on his experiences at the hotel in the 1960s. It then switches to the author at his desk years earlier, narrating how he met Zero, the hotel’s elderly owner, at Budapest, who then tells him over dinner about his experiences as a lobby boy in the hotel in the 1930s. Budapest then switches to Zero’s story, a fast-paced murder mystery that he and his former boss Gustave work to solve to prove Gustave’s innocence after he was framed.
It could easily be disorienting, but Anderson’s deftness and remarkable control leads the viewer through almost effortlessly. Budapest is briskly paced and meticulously planned, down to details like the minature sets used in establishing shots of the hotel. Nothing feels extraneous in this movie — from the quick and tight camera movements to the fast-paced dialogue, everything has its place.
There were some truly beautiful moments. Zero’s reflection on his courtship with his wife Agatha is a sincere expression of the memory of first love. But despite the film’s many strong points and engaging style, I found myself bored and disenchanted about halfway through.
Though the actors’ performances were strong — Ralph Fiennes as Gustave is brilliant and Edward Norton’s appearance as Inspector Henckels is hysterical — and the comedic timing impeccable, I had to ask myself the question I always do during an Anderson movie: what was the point? Though charming at first, the twisting and turning plot began to feel meandering, and the whimsy became tiresome.
Just as I was about to dismiss Budapest as another Wes Anderson movie I didn’t understand, it sharply wrapped up its zany murder mystery plot and focused on something less quirkly contrived — Zero’s cherished memories of his time with Agatha and Gustave. In a sudden and sincere moment of humanity, Budapest becomes a reflection of the people who affect us and the stories they leave us with. And it has converted me into an Anderson fan.