As a critic, I have spent more than 15 years not responding to the films of Wes Anderson. That marks me as a heretic in some circles, but what has always been frustrating to me — and a little mysterious — about my rejection of the Anderson aesthetic is that I truly do recognize what a gifted and original filmmaker he is. For the first 20 minutes of most of his movies, I am bedazzled — at the majestically framed, madly detailed compositions, at the storybook universes he sets up with words and pictures and music and familiar actors in strange mustaches. At a certain point, though, I feel like I’m staring at all of that profuse imagination through a scrim. I can see the characters, but I can’t touch them — not emotionally. With the exception of his 2009 animated fable, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s films, to me, grow detached and monotonous. They’re baubles under glass.
But now I’ve had my Wes Anderson breakthrough — or maybe it’s that he’s had his. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a marvelous contraption, a wheels-within-wheels thriller that’s pure oxygenated movie play. I can’t say that I felt a deep connection to the characters in this one, either, yet that hardly matters, because the movie is just a caper, and it has no real pretense beyond hurtling forward through a wonderland of funny and suspenseful fairy-tale predicaments. That makes it a much looser, freer invention than Anderson’s usual control-freak ant farm.
The film is set in Zubrowka, a fictional ’30s European nation that Anderson treats as a glorious semiruined Old World kingdom, with hotels, castles, and prisons all perched vertiginously atop alpine vistas. The fabulous buildings are like layer cakes — inside and out, they satisfy Anderson’s love for compositional awesomeness — but they also root the film in a kind of antiquated reality. The central character, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), is the concierge at the Grand Budapest Hotel, and he’s a con man and gigolo who speaks in outrageously flowing yet blunt-witted sentences, explaining his schemes to us, one of which involves bedding the wealthy old women who arrive at the hotel for spa vacations. He confesses that he actually likes going to bed with them, and that one sordid detail casually knocks the movie out of Anderson’s usual stylized puritan zone. So does the film’s jarring use of the F-word: It liberates Fiennes — and Anderson. (They make that word sound naughty again.) The Grand Budapest Hotel is the story of a man with an appetite, and Fiennes, who tends to be so dour and earnest on screen, digs into the chance to play a florid scoundrel driven by worldly desire, and by his own twisted code of honor.
The story is told through the eyes of Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), a poker-faced orphan-immigrant Lobby Boy who becomes Gustave’s hotel protégé. (Decades later, Zero is played as a wily old man by F. Murray Abraham, looking back on the events we’re seeing.) What happens, in essence, is this: One of Gustave’s conquests, the 84-year-old countess Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, looking unrecognizably like a dowager who just stepped out of Barry Lyndon), dies, and there’s a furious battle over her will. She has left Gustave a priceless (and hilariously fey) painting called Boy With Apple. But her relatives, including Adrien Brody as their scowling fascist ringleader and Willem Dafoe as a thug who looks like Frankenberry with a crew cut, are so ruthless that Gustave has to steal it.
Set just as World War II (or a tall-tale version of it) is starting, The Grand Budapest Hotel turns into an avaricious wartime chase thriller, with stops for an episode at a criminal internment camp (where Gustave participates in a great escape) and also for a toboggan race that out-jaw-drops anything you saw in the recent Olympics. It’s all nudged along by a wonderful timpani-driven score by Alexandre Desplat that does for this movie what his music in Fantastic Mr. Fox did for that one: makes it hum with intricate momentum. The Grand Budapest Hotel is still every inch a Wes Anderson film, but a new breed of one, since Anderson, for the first time, is out to enchant us without ”saying” anything. For me that lets him say more. A-