Pointing out that Wes Anderson films are works of aesthetic beauty – rich, inventive and colourful, in the manner of strikingly detailed dioramas or wonderful hand-drawn pictures – is, eight features in, something bit of a no-brainer, like observing Martin Scorsese knows how to make good gangster movies or Sergio Leone had a thing for westerns.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012), especially dowsed in Anderson’s arty handmade-like oeuvre, represented a high water mark: the quality of the 44-year-old auteur’s scripts would naturally vary but the look and feel of them would remain at more or less the same level.
So it is entirely expected that his latest — and in many respects his greatest — film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, looks scrumptiously well designed. If Anderson wasn’t regarded as one of American cinema’s most obsessive stylists, he is (or should be) now. The big surprise is how well that dioramic look — decked out with a sense of layers, levels, boxes, compartments, cut-outs — fits with the broader package. Not just the eponymous central location, a wide and lovingly stylised spatial playground, but a wonderfully screwy bits-and-piecey screenplay that delights and amuses as much as the film’s kooky surface values.
A bizarre number of walk-on narrators gives the film a quasi historical bent. When it settles down we follow a tale set in the 1930s about a flamboyant hotel concierge, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), his new lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) and their run-ins with the law. An 84-year-old lady Gustave sleeps with (“I’ve had older”) passes away, leaving him an invaluable painting. The resulting mayhem — involving prisons, escapes, action set pieces and the grisly work of a violent goon (Willem Dafoe) covering up tracks and carving up bodies — are consequences of her jealous family.
This is a Wes Anderson film, so a smattering of familiar faces provide a conga line of small roles (including Jason Schartzman, Tom Wilkinson, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton and Saoirse Ronan). The chemistry between Ralph Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori, who drifts through the running time folding surprise, naivety, bemusement and vulnerability into a laconic bug-eyed performance, is what keeps the heart and soul of it ticking over.
Playing way against type, Ralph Fiennes is nothing short of a comedic revelation as Gustave. He provides such a deliriously irresistible presence, with such expert and seemingly effortless comedic timing, one can’t help but wonder whether all those dramas and serious films were the best investment of his time.
And while The Grand Budapest Hotel is delightfully good fun, it’s the moments of pathos and black humour that reveal the scope of its achievements. Several characters die, and while their deaths are handled flippantly (including the sudden demise of a very unlucky cat) their stories are not. The dynastic-like attitude of the narrators keeps even the smaller characters important parts of a large, and deeply exquisite, tapestry.