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Review: 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' is both hilarious and bottomlessly sad

Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel," a pre-WWII romp in a fictitious European country, is simultaneously the filmmaker's most joyful and saddest film.

Ralph Fiennes (center) plays an erudite but vulgar concierge in Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel."  Credit: Fox Searchlight Ralph Fiennes (center) plays an erudite but vulgar concierge in Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel."
Credit: Fox Searchlight

'The Grand Budapest Hotel'
Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori
Rating: R
5 (out of 5) Globes

Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a movie about murder and death, about nice characters and pets meeting unpleasant ends, about war and time laying waste to life’s stray bits of happiness. It’s also the lightest, funniest and most enjoyable film Anderson has ever made. These are not contradictory positions. Anderson’s films are about (among other things) people trying to avoid the pains of real life, even as they add to the unpleasantness. Just under the OCD surface lies darkness. And just above the darkness, in this case, lies the most purely confectionary of the filmmaker’s works — so much about surface pleasures that one can take it in without entertaining its grimmer qualities.

It takes three separate introductions to get to the main story, as though it was inside a nesting doll. By the time it gets there, most of reality has been chucked, replaced by a fairy tale Europe — one that, even in this fictitious world, with the made-up country of Zubrowka, is about to be destroyed. It’s 1932, and the seeds of WWII are starting to show. But we’re stuck in the cloistered confines of a lavish hotel populated by dowagers, some of whom engage in relations with snooty concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). The death of one of these, a pockmarked octogenarian played by Tilda Swinton, kickstarts a series of madcap but very dangerous adventures involving prison escapes, psychotic richies and one out-of-nowhere shoot-out.

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Anderson has grown so comfortable with his style that, on one level, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a machine firing out his usual gifts: deadpan acting, grouchy and unexpectedly gnomic one-liners, loud colors (this time the dominant one is pink) and lead characters who act as charismatic but reckless impresarios.

Gustave is the latest of these, and one of the best. Fiennes has a field day tipping between his mix of erudition and vulgarity — a shtick that Anderson has long employed. One particularly euphonious sentence, which cascades from Fiennes’ tongue, throws in a reference to penny dreadfuls before ending with the word “candyass.” Gustave is prim and proper, but just when you find him respectable, he talks about blowing a sudden windfall on “whores and whiskey.”

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is so fast-paced, quotable and joyful that it’s easy to miss the deep melancholy and regret running through it — like one character, whose slim screentime isn’t fully understandable until the very end. The key shot is a zoom on a newspaper whose headline warns of looming war — then a pan down to the comparatively minor issue that winds up fueling the entire storyline. It’s a film about Old Europe trying to fight off murderous enemies, the most homicidal of which is played by Willem Dafoe, with bulldog fangs and Nazi-like skull rings on every finger. It’s just been abstracted to the point where it has the consistency of candy.

As in “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which it resembles most stylistically, blood is never spilled, but violence — ugly, brutal violence — still occurs. Death is cartoonish, not because it’s not real, but because Anderson’s making a point of how we’re all afraid to deal with it, be it in a gorefest like “300: Rise of an Empire” or here, in a film where a minor character whimsically loses all of his digits in a slamming door. Watched once, it’s the most entertaining movie in theaters. Revisited, it’s the saddest.

 
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