Eight films in, everybody goes to a new Wes Anderson release knowing exactly what to expect. That's not a sign of predictability or imaginative limitation. On the contrary. It's the sign of an artist who's visionary in every aspect of his craft and has perfected an unmistakable signature style.
I think of other filmmakers who've accomplished this — Tim Burton, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Tati, for example — and I've got to say I'm not sure anyone has succeeded at the level Anderson has. With his latest, the time has arrived to stop thinking of his movies as "great to look at" and to start thinking of them simply as great.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson's greatest achievement to date, the funniest yet most melancholy picture we're likely to see for some time. Primarily set in the early 1930s, the story revolves around a fictional establishment in a fictional eastern European country atop the most fictional mountains ever to grace a live-action production. They look like Edward Gorey painted them.
The palatial pink hotel was once magnificent, but by the time we check in, in the '60s, it has seen better days. Anderson — writing solo for the first time — begins by offering a tour and introducing the charming conceit that the guests are solitary beings who read, enjoy Turkish baths and take meals in the silent satisfaction of their own company. The long shot of the hotel's opulent dining room filled with row after row of tables for one is a classic.
Then the unthinkable happens: A writer played by Jude Law spots a mysterious figure sitting in the lobby and asks the chatty desk clerk (Jason Schwartzman) about him. Later that evening, the writer and the guest, who turns out to be the Grand Budapest's owner, Mr. Moustafa (the great F. Murray Abraham), dine together. The old man tells his story.
It begins with his days as a bell boy apprenticed to the legendary concierge. Gustave H. is a fabulous creation brought to unforgettable life by the last performer I'd ever imagine acclimating to Anderson's personal universe — the normally ominous Ralph Fiennes. He's a revelation in the role of this complicated, contradictory creature: a man who demands perfection, whose taste is impeccable and whose devotion to guests is unquestionable, and who has a thing for wealthy old women.
"She was dynamite in the sack," Gustave recalls of one (Tilda Swinton under miles of latex). She dies early on, leaving Gustave everything and setting in motion a chain of events that includes international pursuit, homicidal progeny (Adrien Brody), young love, a jailbreak, characters reciting poetry at the drop of a hat, the drop of a cat from a high window and a secret society of concierges. All this is set against a historical backdrop dooming the world of the filmmaker's imagination to collide with the real world in the days just before World War II. It's a joy ride, a flight of high-grade fancy and a ripping rollercoaster of a yarn. But it does not end happily — or even wistfully — and that's a first for the filmmaker.
Until now, Anderson has tended to show as much interest in the places he creates — The Life Aquatic's Belafonte or the rolling rectangular worlds of The Darjeeling Limited — as he has in the people who inhabit them. In The Grand Budapest Hotel (ironically, his most elaborate dollhouse ever), the director displays a humanity and depth of feeling he hasn't before, and takes a giant artistic step toward a richer, more mature stage of his career.
Brilliantly conceived, divinely designed, spectacularly acted and funny as hell, The Grand Budapest Hotel offers a vacation from the vacuous that I recommend without reservation. As it turns out, we hadn't a clue what to expect after all.