It’s possible to accuse Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel of verging into self-parody. But I think Anderson is too self-conscious for that. And if you squint just so, you may be able to see it as a response to critics of the Wes Anderson moviemaking method.
In the film’s opening scene, a devoted fangirl approaches the bust of a beloved author. Keys from hotels around the world hang from hooks embedded in the pillar below the bust, and our girl devotedly adds one of her own. The keys make a fitting tribute to the man who wrote the (fictional) novel The Grand Budapest Hotel, and they also let Anderson make his point: this time, at least, THE STORY’S AUTHOR IS THE KEY. The story itself, not so much.
But perhaps you are not convinced by Anderson’s claim. Here, let him convince you. Cut to the author himself (Tom Wilkinson), years earlier, making a video (of himself) on the subject of where good stories come from: they come from the author having the good sense to pay attention and to do a good job of presenting what he observes. This might seem an argument for authorial invisibility in the service of excellent narrative, but don’t be fooled: what matters is his skill in presentation, not the story itself.
Case in point: The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is basically the author’s recounting of what was told to him years earlier, when he was just a young writer (Jude Law), by the aged owner of the joint (F. Murray Abraham). And what did the owner tell the writer? A story from still more years earlier, when the owner was just a boy (Tony Revolori) — and a lobby boy at that. But it isn’t so much the lobby boy’s story as it is the story of Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s remarkable concierge.
So, here we have a story that has made its way across the 20th Century from concierge to lobby boy to writer to fangirl — and in some way, to Anderson himself. And what is the story about? A madcap caper surrounding a dead aristocrat (the concierge had an eye for older ladies), her greedy and scheming family, and a precious painting. It’s often delightful, especially if you’re a fan of Anderson’s compositional eye and mannered dialogue. But it’s also silly and self-indulgent, except when it’s gruesome or heartbreaking. No matter. The presentation is all.
The hotel itself is splendid, both in its opulent heyday and in its communist ruination. Ralph Fiennes plays the fascinating, aristocratic, and profane Gustave with a commitment that is both whole- and light-hearted. And Anderson’s craft as a filmmaker is on full display — the gossamer tale does little to distract the eye. Which is, it seems, the point.