Daft, deft, deliciously designed, and obsessively detailed, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a wild, wonderful ride plucked out of Anderson’s dream journal, playful without being self-congratulatory, lush without being cloying. Containing innumerable surface pleasures and rococo ornamentation on the level of an expert dessert decorator, it’s a splendid contraption, fantastically elaborate, artistically manicured, and comically rich, a wheels-within-wheels thriller that’s pure movie oxygen.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a murder mystery and 1930s crime caper set against the backdrop of a troubled Eastern Europe about to be steamrolled by totalitarianism. Ralph Fiennes stars as Gustave H., a legendary concierge at a famous hotel who offers his guests a renowned hospitality. (As he astutely observes when the veneer of gentility is scuffed by the jackboots of fascism: “The beginning of the end of the end of the beginning has begun.”) The arrival of a new lobby boy (newcomer Tony Revolori), the mysterious death of an aged guest (Tilda Swinton), and the disappearance of a priceless painting set off a chain of events that make for a madcap adventure.
While, like every Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom) release, GBH is undoubtedly an ensemble piece – with laudable work from F. Murray Abraham, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, and Saoirse Ronan – Fiennes’ stylized, rapid-fire delivery is superlative, and both Adrian Brody’s cheerful profanity and Jeff Goldblum’s wry legalese make an enormous impression. Robert Yeoman continues his fruitful and nearly exclusive DP-director relationship with Anderson (he tapped out for Fantastic Mr. Fox), and Alexandre Desplat contributes a gloriously bizarre and bombastic score that culminates at the end of the credits.
Meticulously realized, elegantly zany, and magnificently cockeyed, GBH is a nimble-footed, witty screwball delight, imbued with a premonitory sadness at the coming conflagration. It may be a whimsical romp or a shaggy-dog yarn, but it has a heft beneath its icing. It’s one of Anderson’s funniest and most fanciful, but also one of his most serious and tragic. By providing a vibrant and imaginative evocation of a bygone era, and leavening the lunacy with a few acts of sudden violence, Anderson has created a sublime whodunit with off-kilter affection, designed for cinephiles with sophisticated palates.
Anderson is always passionately adherent to his vision, but in this hotel, he engages with the world outside his meticulously composed frames like never before. He shrewdly places the actors like pieces on a fastidiously-framed chessboard, and takes full advantage of his bawdiest screenplay ever (“…glimmers of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity”). Lateral tracks, push-ins, whip-pans, title cards, chapter headings, fetishization of clothing and props, and absurdist predicaments are used to pinpoint effect.
Yet for all its flourishes, GBH is unique and ambitious in many respects: it’s mature, intricately layered, told in flashbacks, and set in three different time periods; and it features animation, stop-motion photography, and some of the most dynamic action sequences of Anderson’s career. It’s urbane, silly, incident-packed, and slyly campy, with an acutely bittersweet center. In its rare fusion of technical rigour and eccentric banter, it feels like sheer evanescence, and it’s nothing short of an enchantment.
Filled with dramatic zooms and winking symmetry, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an exquisitely calibrated, deadpan-comic miniature that expands in the mind; a lovely confection with acid lurking in the cake’s lowest layers; a frothy Lubitschian comedy shot through with an irrepressible sense of loss. It’s quintessential Anderson and unabashed entertainment. Even long-time grumblers will be charmed, touched, and moved to a new level of respect.
If The Grand Budapest Hotel is another Anderson illusion, there’s only one thing left to be said: he sustains the illusion with a marvelous grace.