By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 6, 2014 at 2:59PM
Over the years, Wes Anderson's movies have steadily developed a lush, eccentric world that operates on its own terms, and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" excels at exploring it. Anderson's colorful period piece reflects the sensibilities of its creator at the height of his artistic confidence. While it notably draws from preexisting material — namely, the writings of Viennese intellectual Stefan Zweig, though Anderson has also tipped his hat to various other wartime literature — one of America's most distinguished modern auteurs has spun his clutter of reference points into a collage-like fantasy adventure so clearly fused with the rest of his oeuvre that it belongs to the writer-director more than anyone else. Yet within the constraints of his distinctive tinkering, Anderson remains a compelling storyteller who provides an actor's playground, in this case providing Ralph Fiennes with one of his most distinguished roles. While it has many familiar ingredients — from the atmosphere to the ensemble of Anderson regulars in nearly every role — in its allegiance to Anderson's vision, everything about "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a welcome dose of originality.
"Once the public knows you're a writer, the stories come to you," says a narrator in the movie's opening minutes, and that certainly fits this unrestrained blend of quirk, melancholia and storybook imagery, which takes place in a made-up country during wartime and unspools as a flamboyant, insuppressibly joyous farce that could only have arrived with the ongoing confirmation of Anderson's talent. The danger with his particular sort of creativity comes the usual trapping of placing form ahead of content: His homegrown style often borders on sensory overload — each neatly designed color scheme and snappy exchange can lead to a string of visual sugar highs, like icing with no cake beneath — and "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" threatened to devolve into self-parody. But everything since then has shown a steady process of refinement. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" ultimately succeeds, like the similarly ostentatious "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," at applying its capriciousness to a set of fascinating characters and real drama underneath the sense of play.
Part action-comedy and crime caper, as well as a keen satire of the same bravura fueling the filmmaking, the writer-director's eighth feature contains a dense plot that unfurls through two layers of narration: Jude Law, as a young Zweig-like writer visiting the palatial hotel in the fictional European mountain country of Zubrowska in the late eighties, comes across the cryptically cheery owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) and asks him about his history at the hotel. While a modern day Law narrates their encounter, Moustafa's narration sends the movie back to 1932, where the main action takes place. The expressive art direction literally expands beyond the frame: Each period receives its own distinctive aspect ratio — most significantly, the Academy ratio of 1.33 for the main flashback, with the boxed-in look aptly reflecting the story-within-a-story framing device.
The central figure of this period is equally a figure of fantasy on par with the setting: Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the giddy concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel, who happily seduces the older clientele while offering dubious life advice to the young doting bellboy Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori, playing the youthful version of Abraham's character). When one of Gustave's elderly paramours suddenly dies (Tilda Swinton, under pounds of makeup in a handful of scenes), leaving a priceless artifact in Gustave's possession, he faces two oppressive forces at once: A skeptical police crew (led by a comically mustachioed Edward Norton) convinced Gustave committed the crime, while the deceased woman's crafty son Dmitry (Adrian Brody) aims to prevent Gustave from claiming the prize, and sets loose the vampiric hitman Jopling (Willem Dafoe) on a path of violence. While chaos ensues, Gustave rarely looses his smirking bravado as he barks orders at Zero, ostensibly the real hero of the story as he develops a romance with the town's young baker (Saoroise Ronan) and slowly transitions from shyness to take control of the situation.
The resulting chemistry between Gustave and the increasingly confidant Zero, as they head across the countryside with various forces on their trail, consolidates aspects of several recent Anderson ventures: Like "The Darjeeling Limited," much of the exposition takes place on a train; like "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," chase scenes maintain a marvelous cartoon-like fluidity; as with "Moonrise Kingdom," the goofy romance and high stakes plot belie the sincerely touching relationships beneath the surface. But "The Grand Budapest Hotel" manages a trickier balance than its predecessors, juggling a speedy plot with striking imagery and perceptive characterizations in the bubbly spirit of a screwball comedy and plenty of soul.
With each beat exquisitely tied to Anderson's techniques, his zippy historical fairy tale (replete with hand-scrawled chapter headings) has a thoroughly immersive quality. The usual vibrant reds and blues (elegantly captured by cinematographer Robert Yeoman) mesh nicely with Alexandre Desplat's jangly soundtrack. At once absurd and beautiful, Anderson's world has never been so spectacularly realized.
It's also, with a plot that splinters off in a handful of maze-like directions, possibly the director's heaviest plot ever — the point where it threatens to grow too dense for its own good during a hazy middle section. But the screenplay regains its footing through ample physical comedy, starting with a prison escape sequence that suggests "The Grand Illusion" directed by Ernst Lubitsch. In the action-comedy phase of the story that follows, Anderson gives us a riotous sled chase, a clandestine gondola maneuver, and allies to Gustave's cost that include both stone-faced monks as well as a superhero-like legion of supportive hotel concierges known as "The Society of Crossed Keys" — providing yet another excuse for a few more staples of Anderson's previous work to squeeze in cameos. The arrival of endless self-referential ingredients may test the patience of anyone unable to operate on Anderson's zany wavelength, but it's hard not to fall for his hypnotic, unapologetically silly riffs on romanticism and adventure.
Despite the relentless charm factor, Anderson's whimsical expressivity is not devoid of greater significance. A comedic allegory for wartime relationships, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" explores the tragedies of socioeconomic collapse in the wake of Communist uprising and fascist threats without giving the conflicts a name. Gustave's conundrum embodies a dramatic tension involving the collapse of old world affluence and the regretful mindset that emerges from facing new generations: his connection to Zero (initially harboring racist implications until the older man decides to take more of a paternal role) has plenty of symbolic ramifications worth sorting through. Gustave's peculiar nature is itself a wry caricature of European ideals in the first quarter of the twentieth century, his flamboyance and sexual promiscuity at odds with his ostensibly conservative views on etiquette. A profound and ridiculous figure whose suave demeanor equally calls up memories of Oscar Wilde and Cary Grant, Gustave embodies Anderson's restless approach.
For every moment that the capriciousness threatens to derail the narrative, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is sustained by an allegiance to that same outlandish imagination. The movie celebrates Anderson's solipsistic artistry as a necessary factor in his success. Describing Gustave years later, the older Zero says "his world rushed by before he entered it, but he sustained the illusion." But it's clear who he's really talking about. Likewise, when Law's writer figure sets the scene in an opening description of the hotel, he describes it as "picturesque," the ideal descriptor for any Anderson set. Then he adds, "I expect some of you will know it." And we do, yet it still manages to surprise us each time out.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Certain to receive strong word of mouth and hype ahead of its release, the movie should receive a strong show of support when Fox Searchlight opens it in April. The early-in-the-year release date might make it a tough proposition to remain in the conversation during awards season, but the movie should benefit from a less competitive marketplace and sustain a healthy box office office presence ahead of summer movie season.