Many years from now, when scholars and critics weigh on the most under-appreciated filmmakers of the early 21st century, you can bet on Wes Anderson’s name being tossed around. Sure, there are many who loathe his distinctive, aesthetically ravishing style – brandishing it too rehearsed, too self-aware – but in an industry that is quickly being consumed by brain dead, corporate-driven, risk-averse franchise filmmaking, a filmmaker like Anderson – an auteur in the purest definition of the term – deserves acclaim for making movies that are accessible yet also absolutely singular in their worldview. And as his newest film, the zany and supremely delectable "The Grand Budapest Hotel" proves, he’s only getting better and better.
Meshing the slapstick energy of "Fantastic Mr. Fox" with the wistfulness of "The Royal Tenenbaums," the heart of "Moonrise Kingdom," and the rebellious spirit of "Rushmore," "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is the film Anderson has been working towards his entire career. As his most emotionally engaging and dramatically complex work to date, it represents an artist consummately comfortable in his own skin. While everything we associate with the Anderson’s style is here – from the meticulously choreographed framing to the bold and colorful costumes to the intricate production design to his trademark dry whimsical humor – the film also reveals a newfound maturity and moroseness unseen in his previous works.
Inspired by the works of noted Austrian author and playwright Stefan Zwieg, Anderson’s madcap, slapstick caper comedy is a simple story sophisticatedly told. Like a gift wrapped under multiple layers of colorful gift wraps, it unveils itself in an artful, intricate manner that only Anderson could have crafted. Revealing the details of this sublime work of pop-art would be denying you of its pleasures but I can tell you this much: A bulk of it is set in 1932 and centers on an effortlessly charming concierge named Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes) whose expertise at running the titular hotel is only superseded by his affinity for courting rich elderly women. When one of his lovers, an octogenarian named Madame D. (Tilda Swinton – plastered with phenomenal old-age makeup) is murdered, Gustav finds himself a fugitive from the fascist army (clearly modeled after the Nazis) as well as Madame D.’s money-grubbing son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and his nefarious brass knuckle brandishing henchman (Willem Dafoe). With Zero (Tony Revolori), his loyal lobby boy and protégé, by his side, Gustav sets out to prove his innocence.
If the basic premise sounds like a wronged-man action thriller, it’s because it is. Except since this is a Wes Anderson movie, it’s also chock-full of madcap hilarity and other fanciful flights of whimsy! Among Gustav and Zero’s numerous shenanigans are an outrageously complicated prison break, an uproarious stop-motion animated ski chase, a bizarre shoot-out in the titular hotel, and a gripping, suspense-fueled sequence in a museum that ends with a sudden burst of violence that had me shouting out loud in horror! Indeed, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" may be the most violent (and profane) film Anderson’s made. The violence also comes with a strong undercurrent of sadness which gives the picture a bitter-sweet tinge. This is especially evidenced in the film’s flash-forwards to the 1960s where an elderly Zero (F. Murray Abraham) narrates his story to an unnamed author (Jude Law) in the now fading hotel.
As to be expected with the filmmaker’s works, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is brimmed with familiar faces from Anderson’s regular company of actors – Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, Edward Norton all make appearances. The film’s best performance however is given by an Anderson newcomer. British actor Ralph Fiennes is best known for playing brooding anti-heroes ("The English Patient") and raging psychopaths, both fictional (the "Harry Potter" series, "In Bruges") and non-fictional ("Schindler’s List") so seeing him let loose as a charming, slightly buffoonish gentleman is a joy! Seamlessly switching modes between charming, courtly, and profane – sometimes in a split second – Fiennes gives the film its buoyancy and much of its charm. It’s the best work by an actor in an Anderson film since Gene Hackman’s sprightly performance in "The Royal Tenenbaums."
But in the end, this is Anderson’s film through and through. Although "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zizzou" and "The Darjeeling Limited" saw the filmmaker lose focus by indulging in his worst instincts by emphasizing quirks and style over narrative substance, he’s been on a roll ever since then; regaining his footing with the stop-motion animated feature "Fantastic Mr. Fox," and refining that vision with "Moonrise Kingdom." "The Grand Budapest Hotel" takes that polish even further. It represents a filmmaker who’s been honing his style for years and who has finally nailed that aesthetic. Sure, it may have the sheen and familiarity of a greatest hits package, but with its dramatically complex storytelling, fastidious attention to design, and an emotionally engaging performance from Fiennes, it feels as sumptuous as a strawberry soufflé and as exciting as an unwrapped gift. In short, it’s a gem and I loved every intricately crafted moment of it.