It’s difficult to know where to start with The Grand Budapest Hotel. I think I’ve set my fingers to the keyboard about a dozen times before this attempt. It’s one of those curious films where I can say, without any doubt, that I enjoyed the film… but am having trouble figuring out what to say to explain why. It’s a problem I also have with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the only other Wes Andersen film I’ve seen.
The film, of course, is about a prestigious European hotel. F. Murray Abraham stars as the present-day owner of the hotel, now fallen on hard times, telling the story of how he came to be its owner. Tony Revolori plays the younger version, known as “Zero”, a mere lobby boy back when the hotel was more renowned, serving under the auspices of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge.
On the face of it, it shouldn’t be a terribly interesting story. Lobby boy makes it big, nothing we haven’t seen before. But this is no typical rags-to-riches story. It’s a mystery, it’s an adventure. The owner of the hotel, a wealthy widow who is one of M. Gustave’s numerous affairs, is murdered. M. Gustave is implicated. Gustave and Zero have to get to the bottom of things while simultaneously eluding the schemes of the widow’s son and his hired goon (Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe). A host of cameos from Bill Murray to Harvey Keitel show up to move the plot along.
Everything about the film is enjoyable, but very low-key, much like The Life Aquatic. It’s an adventure, but one with few attempts at getting the pulse pounding. It’s seldom thrilling, but it’s always intriguing. It’s a comedy, but not one that reaches for the deep belly laughs. No, the audience is seemingly expected to engage in polite chuckling. There are a few laugh-out-loud punchlines, but mostly it’s a film where there is a constant sense of everything being just a bit off-kilter. Fiennes as Gustave puts on a constant performance of politeness and dignity, even while swearing or being shot at or deciding on the spur of the moment to sell a priceless memento just seconds after declaring he’d keep it forever.
It’s a solid reminder that not every comedy has to be constantly over-the-top to be funny.