There's a point somewhere near the middle of writer/director Wes Anderson's characteristically whimsical and imaginative The Grand Budapest Hotel when it suddenly seems too much plot detail has been presented in a single short sequence. The camera stops cold, and the hero, erudite 1930s hotel concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), is seated with his compatriot and lobby boy protege Zero (Tony Revolori). "The plot thickens," Gustave declares, as if directly to the audience. "Why, by the way? Is it a soup metaphor?"
There was a time in Anderson's career after his breakthrough second film Rushmore when "Why?" became a difficult question to answer. Films like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited featured the director's trademark creation of unique alternate worlds on screen, all populated by appropriately vivid characters. These films also seemed all dressed up with no place to go as Anderson's storytelling and sense of purpose failed to keep pace with his singular sense of style. Then came Fantastic Mr. Fox and last year's Moonrise Kingdom, two widely admired movies that found him reining in his peculiar gifts and reaching a new level of artistic success. The Grand Budapest Hotel continues that remarkable run. Anderson thickens this particular plot in service of a bittersweet and life-affirming film that could not have been made by anyone else.
Initially inspired by the works of early 20th-century German writer Stefan Zweig, The Grand Budapest Hotel takes us to a fictional pre-war Eastern European country called Zubrowka as the rise of a fascist regime threatens the demise of an Old World culture.
Once Anderson gets around to it, that plot involves a fight for a vast inheritance symbolized by a single priceless painting. But it's all an excuse to explore universal themes of loyalty, friendship, empathy and compassion in a measured and unsentimental style. The film moves between madcap comedy and murder mystery without missing a beat.
Few directors have earned Anderson's current level of devotion among the world's great actors. Familiar faces found in The Grand Budapest Hotel include Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, F. Murray Abraham, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Jude Law, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Tom Wilkinson and Bob Balaban. Their pleasure in contributing to the film is obvious and contagious. It's enough talent for a half-dozen movies, even at Anderson's level of cinematic complexity. Anderson wrote the lead expressly for Fiennes, who inhabits the role like he was born to it.
Anderson's mastery of on-screen visuals is now so complete that he can mix stop-motion animation, matte paintings, miniatures and live-action photography in a single shot or scene without distracting from his story. There's never been anything quite like it. The Grand Budapest Hotel switches between three distinct time periods, each with its own framing from squarish to full widescreen. It's a mountain of extravagant detail that a younger Anderson might have amassed purely for its own sake, just because he could. This soulful and elegant film suggests those days may be gone forever. — KEN KORMAN