There isn’t much middle ground when it comes to how one feels about Wes Anderson, the filmmaker behind Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom. His meticulous visual style and unflagging quirkiness have won both ardent fans and detractors; one viewer’s delight is another viewer’s preciousness.
The director-writer’s latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel — which opens Friday at AMC Quail Springs Mall 24, 2501 W. Memorial Road, and the Moore Warren Theatre, 1000 S. Telephone Road — is quintessential Anderson. There is no attempt here to woo the unconverted. As with all his films, every detail — and some would contend that Anderson pictures are nothing but details — seemingly bears his imprimatur.
It is certain to enchant his admirers and annoy others. But since I’m squarely in the former camp, let me just summarize that The Grand Budapest Hotel is among his best.
Set in the mythical Eastern European country of Zubrowka, the narrative unfolds as a sort of matryoshka doll. We begin in the present day but soon flash back to 1985 as a writer (Tom Wilkinson, The Lone Ranger) recounts a tale he heard in his younger days. That takes us to 1968, when the titular hotel has become a nearly empty Soviet-bloc relic. A younger version of the writer (Jude Law, Side Effects) meets the hotel’s wealthy proprietor, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham, Inside Llewyn Davis), who, unsurprisingly, has a story to tell.
Zero’s flashback introduces us to Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, Skyfall), the hotel’s concierge during its 1930s heyday. Gustave is a true bon vivant, an extravagantly perfumed dandy whose sophistication and professionalism are offset by the occasional obscenity and the bedding of rich old ladies who frequent the Grand Budapest.
Among his octogenarian lovers is Madame D. (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, Moonrise Kingdom). She dies under mysterious circumstances, and the ensuing brouhaha over the inheritance pits Gustave against Madame D.’s family, a pack of money-hungry jackals led by Madame D.’s son (Adrien Brody, Midnight in Paris).
The family doesn’t appreciate it when the dead woman’s will bequeaths Gustave a priceless painting. It isn’t long before the family has framed the concierge as Madame D.’s murderer, forcing him and his faithful lobby boy, the young Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori), to flee across the country.
The setup is ideal for screwball comedy. Anderson choreographs some of his funniest bits to date. The film features several terrific set pieces, especially a prison escape and an alpine ski chase via the gloriously ramshackle magic of stop-motion animation.
But the humor is underscored by a threat of violence that is unusual for Anderson. Willem Dafoe (Out of the Furnace) oozes menace as a hit man who does not care for cats. The farce plays out against a backdrop of Europe bracing for war. Gustave muses on “this barbaric slaughterhouse once known as humanity,” while Zubrowka is occupied by a force that looks and sounds an awful lot like German Nazis.
Old Europe, as embodied by M. Gustave, is on the verge of witnessing the vanishing of culture and refinement. It isn’t for nothing that Anderson’s script was inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig, a Jewish Austrian writer who committed suicide in the midst of Hitler’s reign of terror.
The Grand Budapest Hotel boasts all the trappings we have come to expect from Anderson, from elaborate camerawork and impeccable production values to scads of movie-geek references. But Anderson is matched here by Fiennes, who is indelible as Gustave. The star-studded ensemble also includes Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Saoirse Ronan, but it is Fiennes who captures Gustave’s mix of grandiloquence and vulgarity, and he is never less than brilliant.