Wes Anderson has settled into his identity as a filmmaker, and by now, you probably have a pretty fair idea what you think of his voice and his general storytelling style. That's true of a lot of filmmakers, and even within that basic identity they create, there tend to be films that are more or less successful overall, films that feel like they represent the very best of what someone does. It is safe to say that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is one of those breakthrough moments, a movie that is so beautifully realized from start to finish that I almost doubted myself on the way home. Could I really have enjoyed that film that much?
A Russian nesting-doll of a movie, this is a story within a story within a story within a story for much of its running time, with additional layers either peeled back or laid on top at various points, and there's a real beauty to the way Anderson structures everything. Without giving away all the wonderful layers to the game he's playing, it's safe to say that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” tells the story of how Gustave H., the concierge of the Grand Budapest, ends up mentoring Zero Moustafa, a lobby boy who is there when war finally ruins the world in which the Grand Budapest exists. It is a love story, a heist movie, a farce, a prison break mission movie, and a sort of beautiful ode to a time that has passed, and it juggles all these disparate threads in a way that is breathtaking and elegant.
Written by Anderson from a story by him and Hugo Guinness, there's an energy to “The Grand Budapest Hotel” that doesn't necessarily feel like anything else he's made. Yes, it's recognizably his work, and the idea that he gets to create an entire fictional version of Europe in the days after one world war and before another, with the hotel located in a country that doesn't actually exist, allows Anderson to fully indulge his design fetish on a whole new level. Zubrowka, is an alpine country, a sort of shabby glorious old European hold-out where rich people go to spend time in a spa, all while having their every need met by the great and gracious Monsieur Gustave, played with relish by Ralph Fiennes. This is a huge reminder of just how gifted a performer he is. I remembered the odd delight of watching his work in “Schindler's List” that first time, agog at some of the choices he made, and I felt the same way watching him here. It is one of those cases where someone slips into a role so perfectly that you can't imagine anyone else even trying it. Fiennes embraces every contradiction inherent to the role. He's both elegant and vulgar, suave and silly, unflappable and openly passionate. He manages to make this larger than life character very human through the tiniest of gestures.
His performance wouldn't be as great as it is if he didn't have Tony Revolori to play off of, though, as the young lobby boy who becomes such an essential part of Monsieur Gustave's life. Revolori is in almost every major scene in the film, and he has phenomenal comic timing. He and Fiennes are engaged in this amazing dance throughout the movie, and they bounce off each other in hilarious and touching ways. One of the highest compliments I could pay to them is that I'd love a whole series of short films that simply show me another comic encounter between Gustave and Zero. They seem like a classic comedy team from the very first scene they play together. Part of what makes them work so well together is that Zero is like a sponge, desperate for experience and the sort of knowledge of what makes the world work that Monsieur Gustave has cultivated over the course of becoming this amazing concierge. Earnest naivete and a sort of weary romanticism shot through with cynicism, one soaking up up the knowledge of the other, makes for a pretty sensational range of reactions between them.
Gustave offers a full range of services to his guests, particularly the elderly rich female ones, and one of the clients he is particularly close to is 84-year-old Madame Celine Villenueve Desgoffe und Taxis, played in some of the most convincing old-age make-up I've ever seen by Tilda Swinton. She is obviously enormously fond of his attentions, and after a spirited stay, she leaves, exhausted by happy, and then passes away. Her death brings the rest of her rancid family out, all of them hoping to inherit her fortune, and one particular part of her will makes Monsieur Gustave a target, especially for her horrible son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and his freakshow of a henchman, Jopling (Willem Dafoe). While Finnes is collaborating with Anderson for the first time here, the returning cast all seems to understand already just how much room there is to have fun bringing these characters to life. Dafoe is this great creepy cartoon thug with an iconic look, and Brody couldn't possibly be having any more fun than he is as this awful, venal thug.
That's true of the whole cast. F. Murray Abraham, Matthieu Amalric, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, and many more familiar faces all show up, and some roles may be larger than others, but every single one feels like an Anderson character who could tell their own story, who are living as part of their own fully-realized world. It's a testament to just how nimble Anderson is that it feels like we get a glimpse into each of these lives, instead of just feeling like celebrity cameos. Robert D. Yeoman's photography uses a different visual language for each level of the story being told, so even if you're not aware of it, there are clear visual cues that explain what we're watching. Alexandre Desplat's score is very wry and funny and gives a great voice to the world that Anderson has imagined.
Not since “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” has Anderson had such a perfect reason to indulge every one of his strengths as a filmmaker, and to see him in such peak form here makes me think we are still just beginning to see what he can do. He seems to be reveling in the very act of storytelling with this film, and so much of the text is about how stories are told or why we need them to be told to us that it feels like a bit of an exercise, but it also has more soul than many of his films. It feels like it matters. It offers up a potent look at how a country responds to the rise of something like fascism, and how gradually something can get sold out from under you, and how important it is to hold on to the things that make us human at a time when survival is a struggle. There is a rumpled dignity to Monsieur Gustave that is played for big laughs at times, but it also shown to have a real impact on Zero and the way he sees the world, and when staring down the barrel of something as crushing as the rise of fascism, choosing to focus on things that make other people's lives more beautiful is a very particular kind of protest. In Anderson's hands, the revolution is ridiculous, and that buys him room to grapple with some big ideas at the same time in what I am sure is one of the best films he's made to date.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” opens in limited release on Friday.