At this point, you’re either with Wes Anderson or you’re against him. Genuine indifference no longer seems like an option, which of course is part of what makes the now sprawling Anderson filmography so great or/and irritating to begin with. Opposition to indifference is in fact a theme in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s most mature work yet and maybe the best-yet defense of his precious style. In addition to being a character-driven caper, beautifully designed, it’s also an excellent tribute to the act of yearning for a better world, even one which acknowledgedly exists only in the virtual composite of memory and overactive imagination.
Set in a rapturously fictional Eastern European republic, the main action occurs between the two World Wars, and concerns the adventure-abetted friendship between the eponymous hotel’s most famous concierge, played by Ralph Fiennes, and his apprentice lobby boy, played by newcomer Tony Revolori, who’ll grow up to be played by F. Murray Abraham and to own the place after its gilded glory days have passed. Anderson’s vast hotel seems well fortified by its layers of fanciful history, as infinitely unpackable as the one in The Shining. This shouldn’t imply that his movie is in any way sinister or open-ended — those traits remain securely apart from Anderson’s specific purview — but rather that as a filmmaker so routinely praised and accused of treating movies as dioramas, he really is in his element here. The locale is richly evocative as a showcase for the mutually illuminating aesthetic schemes of capitalism, fascism, communism, and Andersonism.
Over time it does get crowded in there, with a cast full of familiar Anderson players including Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, and Jeff Goldblum — plus pedigreed newbies including Saorsie Ronan, Mathieu Amalric, Tom Wilkinson, and Jude Law. It may be said that if he really is committed to involving so many actors, Anderson should get better at giving them all enough to do beyond basking in the privilege of being in the gang. On the other hand, here they all are; Anderson may now be the one American director most actors most want to work with, and The Grand Budapest Hotel makes it easy to see why. At the center of it all, Fiennes’ fastidious dandy is a truly glorious cinematic creation, an impressive aggregate of other Anderson protagonists and the most fun this actor has ever been on screen. More than a character, he’s a way of life.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is transparently influenced by the sensitive yet fatalistic Austrian author Stefan Zweig, best known for an autobiography called The World of Yesterday, who fled Nazi-dominated Europe and was driven by despair for his shattered culture to commit suicide in 1942. Anderson absorbs that influence gracefully, with a delicate balance between grandeur and narrative economy. One inspired sequence, involving a phone tree of concierges, comes across with as much giddily accumulated detail as the frenetic letter exchange in Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, and as much sweep as the lighting of the beacons in the The Lord of the Rings. Another is the shrewdly hilarious motif by which characters often pause to spout florid poetry but always get interrupted. So goes the march of history; get with it, but only as much as you can bear.