It’s time for a confession: 48 hours ago, I didn’t like Wes Anderson. At all. I’d long thought of him as a pretentious hipster who tried too hard to keep his movies away from the masses, because the masses couldn’t possibly understand his keenly intellectual point of view and sardonic wit. Something about his style seemed smugly too good for the rest of us, and I was having none of that, thank you very much. In petulant retaliation, I rolled my eyes and scoffed at the treacle whimsy of “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” and leveled equal disdain at “The Royal Tenenbaums,” but thought “Rushmore” was just okay. By the time “Fantastic Mr. Fox” came around, I’d already decided to write Anderson out of my life wholesale, and I gave him no more thought until I walked out of his latest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which I saw for no other reason than I felt I needed to.
Boy, was I ever wrong. In fact, I was spectacularly wrong. To Wes Anderson, a mea culpa: you’re a genius. How could anyone not fall in love with a movie like “The Grand Budapest Hotel”? Here, for the love of the film Gods, is a wholly audacious, funny, quirky and, ultimately, profound piece of art that tells its cleverly-constructed story deliberately and without hesitation.
A tale within a tale within a tale, things move swiftly from a cemetery in 1985, where a young girl comes to pay her respects to a great author, to the 1960s. That author (Jude Law), not yet dead, meets an elderly hotel owner, Zero Moustafa (which sounds eerily similar to the great comedian Zero Mostel), who tells the writer a fantastic story that starts in a time somewhere between the great wars. Zero M., now a teen and lowly bellman at the luxurious but crumbling Grand Budapest Hotel in Eastern Europe, has fallen under the tutelage of the legendary concierge, M. Gustave. If Zero is serious about his job, then Gustave is a fanatic, a politician so well oiled that no guest could possibly be unhappy in his hotel. Gustave also happens to be supremely selfish with a healthy sense of vanity and an unhealthy proclivity for older women. That last bit inadvertently lands him as the prime suspect in the mysterious death of a lustful octogenarian (played under heavy make-up by the great Tilda Swinton). In an effort to clear his good name, Gustave drags poor Zero half way across the country and back, putting both of them in great peril at least a half dozen times. I don’t want to say too much more, except that Gustave and Zero’s adventures involve not one but two last wills and testaments, a rare painting, family machinations and many backstabbings, one thrilling ski race down a snowy mountainside, and, for good measure, a jailbreak that ranks as one of the most ingenious sequences I’ve seen in modern film.
This movie is so much fun, a fact due in large part to Anderson’s exuberant style of filmmaking. His pace of almost no breath between scenes creates a sense of urgency as we move through the story. It builds anticipation. We want to know where Gustave and Zero are going, and where they’ll end up. Anderson helps things by keeping his camera static for long stretches, before zooming suddenly or spinning his camera as a means to draw our eye to the next visual cue. It’s an incredible feat. But even more awe-inspiring is the movie’s highly-stylized look: The Grand Budapest Hotel ranks among the best art direction I’ve ever seen, a fantasyland of rich colors and textures and seemingly fake backdrops that inspire memories of old Hollywood (and, for me at least, a childhood spent watching Pippi Longstocking movies). Pay close attention to the use of the color red, as it accentuates the often cynical, and sometimes subversive, nature of the story. This is a great-looking movie.
For all its style and great story and unbridled enthusiasm, The Grand Budapest Hotel could have failed miserably if not for the strength of its performances, and as the oily concierge, Ralph Fiennes gives one of his best. Here Fiennes not only creates a memorable character, but carries out a precarious balancing act by making him seem both odious and sympathetic at the same time. One minute, he’s bloviating inexhaustibly to his staff about the virtues of good service, and the next he’s fighting off a simulacrum of Nazi soldiers who want to arrest Zero for not having appropriate papers. There’s something especially touching in the relationship between the concierge and his charge, which starts out ice cold and ends up as something far more special, and much of that credit goes to Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori, as the fiercely loyal Zero. Anderson gets other terrific performances out of his all-star cast, which Edward Norton, Jude Law, Adrien Brody, F. Murray Abraham as the elderly Zero, and Willem Dafoe, whose murderous henchman, Jopling, inspires quite a few uncomfortable laughs.
I’ve seen a lot of good movies over the last few years. Some of them, I would call great. But there’s something extraordinary about a movie that has the guts to tap so deeply into our imagination and then run around inside it with abandon and without apology. Sometimes movies just need to be — untouched, unfettered, allowed to be exactly what they are, because they’re perfect exactly as they are. The Grand Budapest Hotel is like that.
(End note: I came home from “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and immediately watched “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” What an amazing movie. I’m completely rethinking my old prejudices toward Wes Anderson, and, frankly, can’t wait to get my hands on “Moonrise Kingdom.”)