There are few auteurs in cinema more distinctive than Wes Anderson, the quietly confident Texan whose films have proved a subtly dazzling antidote to Hollywood's penchant for rote excess. He is everything that mass audiences are supposed to dislike: curiously whimsical, slightly off-kilter -- the anti-Michael Bay if you will.
Yet, he continues to produce work of a superlative standard, occupying that restlessly idiosyncratic corner of American cinema populated by kindred spirits such as Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry. With his eighth feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson once again strikes out in a new direction. He brings with him, however, the visual tropes and narrative flourishes that have defined him since his superbly left field debut Bottle Rocket.
Precisely how Anderson divines his ideas is known only to him. They are the products, obviously, of a keenly creative mind and The Grand Budapest Hotel shows Anderson in full flight. This is lively and imaginative, confident and controlled. It is quite brilliant.
Dispense with the need for an easily accessible plot and Anderson's films becomes infinitely rewarding. He is not one to deal in obscure or abstract art house fare — The Royal Tenenbaums was, ultimately, a recognisable tale of family dysfunction — but his output can be an acquired taste. Indeed taste, perhaps above all else, is an essential element here, sometimes good, sometimes horrible, never unseen.
Opening, for no apparent reason, with a young girl reading alone in the shadow of a bust dedicated to a man known only as ‘the Author’, the setting is as gratuitous as it is vivid: a snowy Soviet park handily dressed with a trio of singing elders. The next stage shows the Author (Tom Wilkinson) introducing the volume in the girl’s possession, namely his book about the eponymous old hostelry. In typical Anderson style his second intro is populated with charming irrelevancies: a mischievous child with a pop gun; Wilkinson’s narration presented as a bulletin-like piece to camera. From the beginning the director’s confidence is almost tangible.
This is a picture of multiple layers, peeled repeatedly in its initial stages to open up fresh angles and lines to follow. The succeeding sequence sees the Author’s younger self — an amusingly upright Jude Law — holidaying in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. His lodging of choice is the draughty, ‘enchanting old ruin’ of the title, replete with faded grandeur and equally weathered kitsch. The Author, in turn, learns of the hotel’s lively history from its urbane owner, Zero Moustafa (the ever impressive F. Murray Abraham).
As the chronology shifts once more, Zero is re-introduced as Tony Revolori’s lowly lobby boy at the luxurious Grand Budapest Hotel. It is a place of class and discretion, ruled over by his mentor, and elegant chief concierge, Monsieur Gustave. As Gustave, Ralph Fiennes is a whirlwind of precise manners, boundless avarice and preening self-regard. It is a hilarious depiction of a truly original character and Fiennes luxuriates in every last word of his refined, expletive-marked dialogue. Given his largely austere résumé, it is easy to forget Fiennes’s facility for comedy and, unfortunately for the rest of the cast, he leaves little room for anyone else.
That is not to suggest any struggles from his fellow players. Newcomer Revolori is more than a match for Fiennes, his deadpan delivery bouncing nicely off the veteran’s biting one-liners and withering verbosity. Jeff Goldblum shines as a steady attorney, the only sane person in a hilariously unhinged plot. Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe stand out also as scumbags for the ages, the former a raven-haired manchild, the latter his creepy fixer. Even Anderson regulars Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman pop up too, sporting ridiculous beards and strange haircuts. By the time Harvey Keitel appears as a bald convict, it is clear that this was a project on which serious talent was jostling for work.
That said, not everyone slots in seamlessly. Edward Norton, normally so watchable, is inexplicably uncomfortable. Saoirse Ronan, herself no stranger to acting excellence, seems to have missed the joke altogether.
The labyrinthine plot borders on indulgent, though, mercifully, it is never dull. As Gustave, Zero and the rest tear around Mitteleuropa in pursuit of the key to a wealthy heiress’s fortune (one of the suave concierge’s many aged lovers), the story and repartee retain a relentless cadence.
As ever, longtime collaborator Robert Yeoman ably captures Anderson’s lushly coloured, Thirties vision. By contrast, his early frames are filled with the sort of folksy, staid quirkiness for which Anderson is known. The energetic camera soaks in the Grand Budapest’s rich palette with as much efficiency as it invigorates the idyllic alpine splendour of its location. From time to time, the duo reach back into the annals of early 20th century European animation, putting to use tiny moving silhouettes and delicate cardboard funiculars. These are mere quaint trappings, of course, but they undoubtedly complement the depths of the experience.
As a piece of pure storytelling, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fantastically enjoyable yarn and Anderson, working from his own script as before, instills it with his usual sense of relaxed, dysfunctional farce. For those wishing to invest in it, there await rewards aplenty.
An edited version of this article was first published here.