The excellent phrase "a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity" is used twice in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Those words could describe a few things. They could refer to (1) the Grand Budapest Hotel, a pink-and-white pristine resort that, like a colossal, obnoxiously ornate gâteau, sits high in the mountains of the Republic of Zubrowka. Or those words could refer to (2) M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the revered concierge of said establishment. With his sharp purple jacket and crisp black bow tie and immaculate mustache, Gustave rules the Grand Budapest with enchanting grace and fastidious obsession, ensuring everyone is doted on—particularly the guests he feels a particular affinity for. And there's one final thing those words might refer to: (3) Wes Anderson's latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel.
I'm inclined to think Anderson (and his cowriter Hugo Guinness) meant for those words to refer to (1) and (2), but they work just as well to describe The Grand Budapest Hotel as both a film and an intention. There's been darkness in Anderson's films before—the vague, disappointed melancholy of Moonrise Kingdom and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the surprising marital discord that plagues even the fantastic Mr. Fox, death's unwelcome intrusion into blithe privilege in The Darjeeling Limited, Richie's suicide attempt in The Royal Tenenbaums, the ghost of Max's mother in Rushmore, Dignan's marvelous, doomed plans in Bottle Rocket. (For all his careful craft and deliberate whimsy, Anderson's films are never quite as cheerful as one remembers.) But in The Grand Budapest Hotel, doom and death are all but unavoidable: The film is set largely in Eastern Europe in the 1930s, and just outside the hotel's doors lies the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity.
Doom and death strike early in The Grand Budapest Hotel: One of Gustave's favorite guests, the impossibly wealthy Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), promptly dies, leaving Gustave a priceless painting, Boy with Apple, and setting off a mystery, a thriller, and a madcap chase. Madame D.'s furious children, led by Dmitri (Adrien Brody), are out to get Boy with Apple—and Gustave—at all costs, even employing murderous henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe). Meanwhile, Gustave does his best to stay alive, hopping from trains to trams to sleds, bringing along the hotel's earnest lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori). And that's not to mention Zero's lovely girlfriend (Saoirse Ronan), Madame D.'s cat-carrying lawyer (Jeff Goldblum), an incarcerated badass (Harvey Keitel), and a jackbooted commander (Edward Norton) whose thuggish soldiers are patrolling Zubrowka's borders with increasing violence. I won't bother getting into how Jude Law and F. Murray Abraham fit in.
It's a big cast, and a big story, and as an adventure and a caper, The Grand Budapest Hotel is so tremendously, ridiculously fun that it would exuberantly fly off its rails if it weren't for Anderson's confident touch and Fiennes's remarkable performance. If anyone tells you The Grand Budapest Hotel isn't hilarious, they're dead inside, but so is anyone who thinks it's merely a screwy comedy: The darkness that peeked from the corners in Anderson's earlier films is starting to crawl out. Even with all its fantastical affectations, The Grand Budapest Hotel has an ominous weight. Still, to call the film "sad" would be too simple. Better to call it a glimmer of civilization.