I first made my way to the Music Box Theater in Chicago when it was my only way to see Evangelion 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance in theaters. It was my friend and I making a lengthy drive from the southwest suburbs of Chicago to the North Side, and, I expected a sort of... regular Cineplex… only a lot smaller. We parked a few blocks away, walked to the main block on Southport Avenue, turned, and, despite being several blocks north of the theater, a huge, glowing, vertical sign caught our collective gaze. “MUSIC” was in bold radiant red and distinguished itself from the blurred far-off surroundings. As we got closer, “BOX” revealed itself as a smaller word sitting underneath: “MUSIC BOX.” Once we hit the actual block of the theater, we saw it boasted a lit-up list of the films being screened where each letter has to be manually added, right out of Shoshanna’s movie theater in Inglourious Basterds and countless classic films. This was no AMC, Regal, or Cinemark - this was a classic movie house from yesteryear, preserved and run with a passion and romance for the movies. I learned it originally opened in 1929. The immediate entrance is humble, but the primary screening atrium is furnished with faux-marble pillars, balconies, and intricate architectural flourish. And, in a final touch to fully immerse you in the nostalgia of the great movie houses, an organist plays in-house until the picture begins. I can think of no other theater, certainly not in Chicago, that would have been a more fitting debut for Wes Anderson’s exquisite new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Adored hotel concierge Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) runs a hotel in 1932, The Grand Budapest, that, fitting to its name, can only be described as grand. An early scene shows Gustave rapidly walking through the hotel’s corridors and main lobby efficiently barking out changes and imperfections to the staff with the fierce grace of a hawk. His prey? Lackluster service. Gustave H instructs his eager lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori) on the key to operating a hotel: “Anticipate people’s needs before their needs are needed.” The Grand Budapest is Gustave H’s aspiration for a divine experience of novel propriety and comfort, which is, so the film laments, all but abandoned today. And to add another touch of pining nostalgia to the film’s core, the narrator and main character Zero believes Gustave’s magnificent sense of decorum had already been forgotten by the time of his running of The Grand Budapest. Just as The Music Box upholds the splendor of the old movie houses, Gustave’s hotel upholds the splendor of the previous era, making it many times removed from the present day. Thus, there’s a sincere sense of sadness that’s cast over the film as a whole. In a funny way, describing the tone of Grand Budapest is in itself a plot summary, as the plot is merely Wes’ feeling of loss for these forgotten moments in time that he brought to life through drama. Although, as Wes recently joked in a Q&A, it’s the first time one of his pictures has what could be called a “plot.” As always, I’m wary to go into detail, but suffice to say Gustave H and Zero become entangled in a plot involving murder, a priceless painting called “Boy with Apple”, and a fascist military.
It’s the most fully realized world of any Wes Anderson film, and just like Avatar, the story is a travel guide through the world as much as the world is a gateway for the story. Each meticulously planned out frame is filled with impeccable set design, a Kubrickian eye to detail, and astounding in-shot choreography that even the laziest viewer couldn’t miss. For example, a character enters the frame, performs a complex action, leaves the frame, then the camera will quick-pan (suddenly change directions without cutting) and further actions are performed with acute precision. The effect is one of overwhelming realism. This is ironic, because Grand Budapest takes place in a fictitious Eastern European nation called The Republic of Zubrowka. There are constant allusions to history throughout, from fascism to communism, making the setting and events of the film instantly recognizable for audiences. Sometimes this is for comedic effect, but far more often it’s for a much more serious goal. The film’s setting, with all its rampant political symbolism, lets Wes tell a story he couldn’t have if he grounded the movie in reality. Satirizing real-life Nazis hasn’t been in vogue since Indiana Jones, no matter how hard Guillermo Del Toro tried to resurrect that trope with Hellboy. Instead, its authenticity is of a kind totally unique to Wes Anderson himself. This is similar to many of his films, like the imaginary New York in Royal Tenenbaums, only intensified tenfold.
There’s a high-intensity chase sequence late in the film that might make his fans do a double take. Or they would if it wasn’t executed almost entirely in stop motion photography like The Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline. Many of the scenes that take place outside are actually captured with the stop motion method, certainly a trick he perfected from Fantastic Mr. Fox. These sequences should seem artificial and contrived, pretentious even, but they aren’t treated as anything other than what they are: a natural part of his made up whimsical world.
Beneath the rich aesthetics is his most fully developed setting and story, with many interconnected moving parts that may be difficult to fully digest on a first viewing. Really, the film has as many as five plot-arcs running at the same time, collapsing and expanding on each other with the same fluidity as Chris Nolan’s Inception. It’s complex without ever feeling like you missed the essential details, it’s just that you’d want to return more than once to absorb them all. There are stories within stories within stories, not to mention the moving parts in each layer of the narrative. If you’ll notice, this is a recurring theme in Wes Anderson’s films except, maybe, his last. Rushmore opens and ends with a theater curtain, and you begin to wonder if Rushmore the film is just another one of Max Fischer’s plays. The Royal Tenenbaums is a book read to the audience, and The Darjeeling Limited has a character who, against his best intentions to write fiction, ignorantly and accidentally writes about his life instead. In Grand Budapest, some of those things are repeated, and just as the setting of Zubrowka exaggerates Wes’ habit of making alternative worlds for his stories, the story-within-a-story element is exaggerated as well.
You get the impression Wes threw everything he had into this one, and his sense of ironic self awareness was just one of those tools. This may explain the hilariously overfilled cameo cast, where almost every scene has yet another famous face. Like the stop motion, this could’ve felt gimmicky or pretentious, but instead it’s as though we’re getting a glimpse at fully realized characters instead of forgettable random extras. It might be a superficial and easy way to add depth to your picture, but it works. They’re all a delight. As you may have heard, so is the primary cast. Ralph Fiennes damn near steals the film as Gustave H, giving an Oscar-worthy comic performance as an effeminate and delicately drawn figure who was the most liberally perfumed man Zero ever met. Somehow, Fiennes gives Gustave the impression of being all too dainty but much too forceful quite at the same time, and it’s unfortunate he’ll be forgotten by the next round of Oscar nominations. Newcomer Tony Revolori impressively holds his own against the stunning ensemble, and Saoirse Ronan is becoming one of the loveliest young actresses around. It must be said, though, that there is a major flaw. The film moves too fast for its own good, and it takes some time to conjure real emotional depth when it could’ve had it from the start. Wes repeats himself a lot here, including coming of age and facing death, but it takes some time for those things to resonate.
The film spans multiple timelines over the hotel’s most glorious time period to its worst, giving the whole film a feeling of temporal scale rarely felt in cinema. To help accomplish this, Wes uses a different aspect ratio for each time period, and suitably enhances the feeling of nostalgia. Time is felt in an unnervingly palpable way that is unusual to cinema as a whole. This is extraordinarily impressive, and viewers truly experience the wistful yearning for a time and place that has long lost its luster, and then to want so badly for it to be restored. In that sense, and in many others indeed, the audience experienced everything Wes hoped for in his most ambitious outing yet. It plays a little bit like a greatest hits collection where Wes took the best parts of his previous films and made his best one yet. I’m a few viewings away from assessing its place in a filmography of excellence, but the first viewing hit me harder than Willem Dafoe’s right hook.
As The Grand Budapest Hotel played on the cinema screen at the Music Box movie theater, a crucial sense of class had, at least for a night, been restored. Gustave H would have been proud.