Wes Anderson doesn’t so much direct movies as build them from scratch, brick by colorful brick. He’s an architect of whimsy, his brain an overstuffed filing cabinet of elaborate blueprints. To watch one of his comedies—and they’re all comedies, from the boisterous Bottle Rocket to the magical Moonrise Kingdom—is to be ushered into a new world, custom designed from top to bottom. Anderson’s latest invention, The Grand Budapest Hotel, may be his most meticulously realized, beginning with the towering, fictional building for which it’s named. From the outside, this luxury establishment—situated in a scenic corner of an imaginary Eastern European country—resembles nothing so much as a giant, frosted birthday cake, delectable enough to devour. On the inside, it’s a museum of invented history, every room dressed with so much Andersonian stuff that it could inspire a whole series of spinoffs. Were the merit of the man’s films determined solely by the amount of bric-a-brac they contain, this new one would surely rank first in his illustrious filmography.
To some, The Grand Budapest Hotel probably will look like a career pinnacle, if for no other reason than it crams all of its creator’s signature moves and interests into one zippy package. Superficially speaking, Anderson has returned to the ensemble pleasures and literary affectations of his actual masterpiece, The Royal Tenenbaums. Working for once without the input of a co-scripter, the writer-director applies several layers of narrative remove, his story beginning in a modern-day cemetery, as a teenager cracks the spine of a novel called The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film quickly rewinds to the ’80s to meet the author (Tom Wilkinson), then further back to the ’60s to encounter him as a younger man (Jude Law) staying at the once-mighty, now-dilapidated hotel of the title. There, the aging owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), reminisces about his own 1930s salad days as a lobby boy (Tony Revolori) under the tutelage of concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). These multiple narrators are crucial: Like a piece of juicy gossip passing through a crowd, the past becomes romantically distorted each time it’s retold.
Certainly, a little creative embellishment might account for the impossible eccentricity of Gustave, one of Anderson’s most incorrigible rapscallions. As played by Fiennes, who exhibits a heretofore unseen playfulness, Gustave is a man of particular, peculiar taste—a devil-may-care dandy who prefers his chocolate decadent; his perfume pungent; and his women moneyed, wizened, and blonde (always blonde). He reserves his true passion, however, for his place of employment; for all the man’s strange predilections, he is first and foremost an aficionado of fine culture. In an instructive early scene, Gustave extols the virtues of a priceless painting, his gushing appraisal sounding like an argument for the kind of lush aesthetic pleasures Anderson himself holds dear. Of course, he also knows how much the artwork would net him on the open market. That’s the character in a nutshell: Thoughtful and refined one minute, crassly opportunistic the next.
Taking his cues from his protagonist, Anderson has made a madcap caper that doubles as a winsome eulogy for such archaic virtues as glamour, civility, and dutiful customer service. He’s also assembled nearly all of his regular players—some dropping in for as little as a scene, a shot, even a few frames—while adding several game new participants to the troupe. The plot actually pivots around that beloved painting: When one of his elderly, satisfied “customers” (Tilda Swinton, under a mass of convincing old-age makeup) dies of mysterious circumstances, bequeathing him the valuable Boy With Apple mere hours before her demise, Gustave is naturally accused of her murder. His attempts to prove his innocence, with trusty Zero at his side and the authorities on his tail, lend Grand Budapest the locomotive pacing of a classic romp. His visual imagination in overdrive, Anderson stages several inspired chase sequences, a daring prison break, a suspenseful pursuit through an empty museum—all accompanied by the thrum and jangle of Alexandre Desplat’s lively score. Even more so than usual, the director seems to have drawn inspiration from the morbid illustrations of Edward Gorey: His black-clad villains, played by Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe, are right out of one of the artist’s macabre collections, as are the sudden flashes of darkly comic mayhem.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a delightful contraption of a film, its characters gliding around like intricate moving parts, its camera lurching with signature, machine-like fluidity. It’s not, however, one of Anderson’s best films. Gustave, funny though he is, never reveals the kind of hidden depths that distinguish the filmmaker’s great heroes—his Max Fischers, his Royal Tenenbaums. Nor does Zero’s polite-sidekick appeal blossom into anything richer, even when Anderson grants him a tender romance with Saoirse Ronan’s brave baker. (Abraham, to his immense credit, supplies the lion’s share of the film’s sporadic poignancy.) Budapest turns its immaculately envisioned world inside and out, offering generous glimpses of its mural-like exteriors and packing every inch of its interiors with idiosyncratic detail, but it never quite breaches the cartoon surfaces of its characters, whose melancholy is just another outfit pulled from the director’s bottomless costume chest.
No matter: Eight features in, and showing no sign of slowing down, Anderson has reached the point in his artistic development where every new film—even a flavorful lark like The Grand Budapest Hotel—feels major. Loyalists will love it, detractors will renew their objections, and those who fell long and hard for Rushmore may be stricken by a nostalgic desire to see this essential American auteur collaborate again with Owen Wilson, co-author of his earliest, most sublime creations. As any Anderson connoisseur knows, the man’s true genius lies not with the eye-grabbing scenery, but with the soulful neurotics capering through it.