The many films of Wes Anderson aren't just an acquired taste, they're often so specific one wonders if they were meant for anybody other than Anderson himself. That creative independence has led him to amass a huge following, but for me his films have always been too idiosyncratic and emotionally distant. While there's always been a certain love for the antiquated in his films, that admiration for the old ways was best realized when Anderson tapped into a certain childlike sense of wonder, giving us his most creatively successful films: Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom. And now he's hit on the same beautiful sweet spot again in The Grand Budapest Hotel, a whimsical, confectionery delight filled with Old World charm and a hint of sadness.
Sadness, in that Anderson clearly fancies himself a man "out of time", a description later used to describe his lead character, the refined hotel concierge M. Gustave. Played with suave, slightly sleazy perfection by Ralph Fiennes, Gustave is a snobbish lout of impeccable demeanor and manners. He's a character who would fit perfectly in the cultured comedies of German director Ernst Lubitsch, from whom Anderson draws a clear inspiration. Set mostly in the Lubitsch period of the early 1930s, the film takes place in the fictional European country of Zabrowska, seen in pastoral pinks and delicate storybook affectations that have become an Anderson trademark. Anderson has become increasingly fascinated by the nostalgic look of his films, weaving it more seamlessly into the fabric of his story. Here, in a story set during a time of impending war, it allows for a fantastical twist on history that is a dream to luxuriate in.
While the bulk takes place in the '30s, things actually begin in 1985 with an author (Tom Wilkinson) recounting a story his younger self (Jude Law) was told in the '60s by the hotel owner, Zero Mousafa (F. Murray Abraham). That tale in flashback is where the story rests, when we meet Gustave and are introduced to Zero, who back then was a refugee turned lobby boy and assistant. Gustave is a perfectionist of the highest order, running a tight ship that provides for everything his guests could want and need. But even then his personal code of honor and ethics was something of an antiquated notion, and Gustave the last of a dying breed. He's also a man who enjoys the company of many women, the older and richer the better. When his favorite of these mistresses, Madame D (Tilda Swinton, in some fantastic make-up), suddenly dies under mysterious circumstances, she leaves Gustave a priceless painting, which doesn't exactly make her surviving family very happy.
Anderson's loving detail doesn't just stretch to the design, but in the construction of the many supporting characters. Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman play small but vital roles, and it's amazing how they make these characters their own in only a matter of moments. One of the film's joys is seeing how they all fit into the natural order of Gustave's daily regiment, and we're content to bask in that enjoyment right along with Anderson. It's only when the story steers into screwball crime caper territory and ventures outside of the hotel's doors that the pace comes to a crawl, and Anderson seems less enchanted by the material. And as his interest slackens so does ours, and one can't help but yearn for a return to the comforts of the hotel and its odd little assortment of misfit characters and their antiquated notions. This is one of those films with so many visual layers a repeat viewing is a must in order to catch them all.
The mood eventually shifts, leaving behind the chicanery and taking on a sadder note. As darkness looms, the hotel falls into disrepair and with it the civil nature of men like Gustave. We get it, that Anderson sees his application of and appreciation for classical techniques as out-of-step in a Hollywood that no longer cares for such things. If he lays this message on a little thick, darkening the mood a bit too much, it's at least yet another sign of why Anderson is such an uncommon filmmaker. Exquisitely crafted, rich in detail and meaning with a number of memorable characters, you'll never want to check out of The Grand Budapest Hotel.