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At this point, Wes Anderson isn’t just the name of a famously meticulous and visionary director who is at least partly responsible for the rebirth of the dandy in American culture. Wes Anderson is an adjective, a film genre, a worldview in which all things are seen through a pair of binoculars and written in yellow Futura font.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, the 44-year-old’s latest and eighth feature overall, is clearly a very Wes Anderson film, complete with many of the idiosyncrasies that make his work distinctive and, to some, excessively precious: quirky, deadpan humor; characters communicating via handwritten letters; richly detailed and meticulously arranged production design; the presence of Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson (albeit, this time, in smaller roles). The movie even has its own signature fragrance, a musky men’s cologne called L’Air de Panache, which might be the most flagrantly Wes Anderson thing ever invented.
But the difference between Grand Budapest Hotel and some of Anderson’s early works is its lightness. This is a caper that’s zippy, often hilarious, and aware of its Andersonian tendencies. It’s as if the director is saying, “I know some of you find me twee. Let’s just embrace that and have fun.” In many ways, that’s a great thing: Grand Budapest—with its core narrative about a hotel concierge caught up in a wealthy, shady family’s estate battle over a lucrative painting—frequently causes giggle fits. But it also never quite hits the emotionally resonant notes of some of Anderson’s other movies. There’s no Ben Stiller-dead dog moment like the one toward the end of The Royal Tenenbaums, when genuine human feeling breaks through the cinematic precision and artifice.
Narratively, The Grand Budapest Hotel is structured like a Russian doll, with flashbacks that open up to other flashbacks until we arrive in the 1930s and meet Gustave H., the aforementioned concierge (Ralph Fiennes) who douses himself in the aforementioned L’Air de Panache and takes a young lobby boy named Zero (played in his youth by Tony Revolori and, at a more advanced age, by F. Murray Abraham) under his wing. Gustave’s dalliances with rich, older women are legion, but his relationship with a particular dollar-signed senior citizen—Madame D. (Tilda Swinton in heavy makeup)—is what sends the film careening through a series of art thefts, jailhouse breakouts, and ski-and-sled chases far more enlivening than anything witnessed during the Sochi Olympic Games.
One of the central pleasures in all this silliness is Fiennes’ performance, which is all manners and fey suaveness, interrupted by the occasional sputtering freak-out and mad dash from the cops. His work here is a reminder that Fiennes isn’t just a marvelous dramatic actor, but one who also knows how to put his lean, regal frame to great comedic use. In Gustave’s fastidiousness, it’s also possible to see shades of Mr. Anderson himself.
Using his signature painstaking and imaginative approach to telling the story of a hotel whose glory days are behind it, Anderson reminds us once again of the value of paying attention to detail in a contemporary world that keeps telling us not to sweat the small stuff. Gustave sweats the small stuff. So does Wes Anderson. But in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson also exhibits the confidence and sense of humor to say it’s OK to look at all that fussy sweating and simply, uninhibitedly, laugh.