When I first viewed the one-two punch of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums back in 1998 and 2001, respectively, it felt as though these films were made just for me, a romantic who lives and breathes cinema. Of course, I wasn’t alone in my admiration of Wes Anderson’s pictures, handcrafted wonders that orbit around dreamers whose ambitions find them reaching beyond their lower-rung economic status, from Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer to Owen Wilson’s Eli Cash. These are people who crave family, and I’ve little doubt that the long-ago breakup of Anderson’s parents’ marriage has deeply influenced his art.
Wilson, who began his career as the co-writer of Anderson’s first three films, had also played the earliest incarnation of the person who longed for more when he appeared as misguided criminal mastermind Dignan in Bottle Rocket (1996), both his and Anderson’s debut. That film didn’t quite contain the visual style that began taking form in Rushmore, an intentional feeling of artifice, of life in miniature, that’s only grown in scale in each of Anderson’s subsequent features.
But that artificiality that I once found so endearing began to congeal in pictures like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and The Darjeeling Limited (2007), both of which seemed to suffer without the co-authoring hand of Wilson. In fact, I was so convinced that Anderson had boxed himself into an overly precious dollhouse that I mistakenly found the stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)—his delightful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book, with its meticulously sculpted sets and puppet characters—to be the film that Anderson had spent a career building toward. This was a good thing, as far as I was concerned, since the movie was immensely enjoyable and—ironically, for a film populated by anthropomorphized animals—it contained the painfully raw humanity and real, melancholy emotion that’s another hallmark of Anderson’s best work.
So I’m thrilled to report that the auteur’s downright magical return to a live-action canvas with 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom only set the stage for his latest confection. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a sprawling valentine to a place that never was, an Eastern Europe nestled between the two world wars as viewed through the prism of 16-year-old Zero Moustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori), a South Asian émigré and the newly minted lobby boy at the titular mountainside retreat. Moustafa becomes the most trusted friend and companion to M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, in a gloriously profane performance), the dandy, “liberally perfumed” concierge for the famed hotel, a physical creation that ranks with the Tenenbaums’ townhouse as a fully realized and believably lived-in space of the imagination.
If I’ve taken a while to introduce the main players through dense, convoluted back story, so too does the film, which opens in the present, as a girl in a beret (Anderson does like his girls in berets) visits the run-down grave of a writer in “the former Republic of Zubrowka—once the seat of an empire.” Tucked under her arm is the author’s novel, The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Anderson then cuts to 1985, with the writer (Tom Wilkinson) being interviewed (really, he’s addressing us directly) about the yarn we’re about to see unfold, which he claims to have been told firsthand. This leads us to 1968, when the writer (now played by Jude Law) is staying at the dilapidated, Soviet-era shell of the no-longer-grand hotel as treatment for “Scribe’s Fever, a form of dementia afflicting the intelligentsia of the time.” It’s here that the writer meets an aged Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who tells his tale, finally getting us to 1932, where his story encompasses the murder of a dowager, the theft of a fictional Renaissance painting, even more murders and the largest, most impressive cast you’re likely to encounter in theaters all year. There are too many stars to list, but I have to note that Anderson repertory players Bob Balaban and Bill Murray have even less to do here than they did in George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, which seems downright criminal.
But then, I’m greedy. When a film contains such ornate riches (it’s masterfully photographed in three separate screen aspect ratios—on film!—by Anderson regular Robert D. Yeoman, scored like your childhood music box by composer Alexandre Desplat and, yes, even allowed a little animation), you simply want more. And with it coming in at a fast-paced 99 minutes, there’s barely enough time to take in everything. Sure, The Grand Budapest Hotel might feel deceptively slight after the long-forgotten pleasures of a summertime romance, wistfully remembered in Moonrise Kingdom, but it’s still wonderful to have Anderson back, without reservations.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Tom Wilkinson, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton. Screenplay by Wes Anderson, based on a story by Anderson and Hugo Guinness. Directed by Wes Anderson. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner and Kendall Square.