The latest from writer-director Wes Anderson is so gleefully ambitious and darkly comic, it's difficult for me to believe that any even-casual fan of Anderson's work (RUSHMORE, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, FANTASTIC MR. FOX, MOONRISE KINGDOM) wouldn't enjoy it immensely. Then again, there are undeniably those in the world who don't like Anderson's style of filmmaking that presents a world in horizontal movement, with actors often playing against type, and a heightened sense of reality that still seems to have very recognizable counterparts in the real world. As one colleague of mine put it after watching THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (and loving it): "Anderson gets more Anderson-y with each new film." I couldn't agree more.
With perhaps his largest collection of characters and a story set in a fictional European nation between the world wars, Anderson gives us this tale of longing for a past that seemed simpler when it fact it probably wasn't. It was simply a time when these characters were younger and felt invincible and adventurous. Through a series of storytelling devices that will sound far more complicated than they actually are (so I won't got into them), the main tale is that of a lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revelori), who works at the titular hotel under the watchful eye of the legendary concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, whose performance will transform what you think he's capable of as an actor), and man who is the pinnacle of taste and culture. But he not only serves his guests, he services them when called upon. Yes, the rich, old ladies who frequent the Grand Budapest do so because Gustave is also a bit of a gigolo. I'm going to let that sink in with you for a minute.
One of his richest is a dowager named Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, unrecognizable buried under very believable old-age makeup), who is deeply in love with Gustave and leaves her most valuable possession to him upon her death—a painting—much to the dismay of her nasty family members, including Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Gustave and Zero hatch a plan to steal, hide and eventually sell the painting, and thus begins the caper aspect of the film. It's difficult to discuss THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL without wanting to go through it scene by scene to discuss how wonderfully each shot is composed and realized, in an almost artificial world that Anderson has created. Some of the snow-covered mountain vistas look like they were constructed like a pop-up book—just pull the paper lever and the tram goes up the mountain; pull on another, and a little skier goes down the mountain.
But make no mistake: despite its storybook qualities, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is probably Anderson's least kid friendly (not that many of his movies are) and most openly violent work to date. It's still pretty tame by today's standards, but when a character loses his fingertips when a door slams on them, it's fairly shocking. Still, even the small amount of blood is spilled in a playful manner that seems necessary rather than grotesque or exploitative.
The life that Fiennes adds to the Gustave character needs to be seen multiple times to really grasp how magnificent his work is. At first glance, the concierge seems to be the epitome of elegance and decorum, but there are times when he gets frustrated or anxious where another, darker figure emerges—one who swears with a casual "Fuck it!" or lets his brasher side show, one who hints at once being a con artist or some other brand of thug.
Revolori's Zero is a wonderfully understated counter to Gustave silk-smooth mannerisms. Zero is the constant student, always observing, learning and following suit. He's also in love with young pastry chef Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), who assists the men in their schemes regarding the painting and with a jailbreak later in the film.
For a film that runs far less than two hours, Anderson has packed it to the gills with events: chases, fighting, love, mystery, skiing, monks, elder sex, fascists, you name it. Not to mention the dozens of characters played by the likes of F. Murray Abraham as the elder Zero, Jude Law as the writer who is hearing Abraham tell his story, Edward Norton as a military investigator with has a past with Gustave, Mathieu Amalric and Lea Seydoux as the French help of Madame D., Willen Dafoe as the downright feral right-hand ruffion of Dmitri, Jeff Goldblum as Madame D.'s estate lawyer, Harvey Keitel (!) as one of Gustave's fellow inmates, and an army of hotel workers, played by the likes of Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban and Fischer Stevens.
In many ways, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL feels like an Anderson greatest hits of visual tricks, methods and acting styles. But it's also the film that finds him borrowing the most from other sources, most notably the credit "inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig," the Austrian writer who used dry humor to convey his societal commentaries; and the films of German-born Ernst Lubitsch who made a career in Hollywood (THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER being one of the best known). Anderson isn't stealing from these artists, so much as paying tribute their all but lost works in the memories of filmgoers. It's a worthy endeavor, but hardly the sole reason to see this film.
The real reason to make seeing THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL a priority is that it's the sly, hilarious and darkly brilliant culmination of all that Anderson has been building toward, and it features several eye-opening performances by actors whose limits we had assumed we knew in the hands of a director who still has the capacity to surprise us in small but significant ways. It's joyous and melancholy in the same breath, a cautionary tale about nostalgia and a very funny romp through a fictional troubled time that still feels familiar. Send me a postcard from the Republic of Zubrowka.