The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders, Saturday Night Live's horror trailer in the style of a Wes Anderson movie, is funny not just because it's so stylistically dead-on but also because it's so affectionate. In the nearly 20 years since releasing his debut, Bottle Rocket, Anderson has become an indie-film force of nature that's impossible to deny. At this point, you either love his precocious diorama style or you don't. Hoping he's going to "evolve" is like wishing Quentin Tarantino would "grow up"—a waste of time. The precise framing, the arch characters, the sad/funny tone: These aren't quirks; they make up the very core of what Anderson does. The people who laughed loudest at the SNL parody are probably Anderson's biggest fans. We know he's got a schtick—it's just that we like the schtick a lot.
Anderson's latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, won't do much for those who have written the guy off, but as someone who actually thinks he's grown warmer and more interesting as he's gone along, I'd place this new movie among his very best. It does plenty that you'd expect from him but, pleasantly, it also features some new wrinkles. His movies always feel storybook-artificial, but The Grand Budapest Hotel also manages to be twisty and enthralling. Now that he's honed his movies' sense of tone, he's found time to become a rather crackerjack storyteller.
Set largely between the world wars in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka, The Grand Budapest Hotel kicks off with the sort of cutesy conceit that Anderson's film-geek crowd will eat up. The movie is actually the work of an older novelist (Tom Wilkinson), whose memoir recounts his acquaintance years ago with a rich Middle Eastern man (F. Murray Abraham) who told him a story of how he first became associated with the fabulous Grand Budapest Hotel, which we see in flashbacks. The three different timelines are distinguished by three different aspect ratios, which means that the framing changes throughout the movie.
Admittedly, that sounds pretty precious, but in its execution The Grand Budapest Hotel is actually playful. If one of the film's themes is the nature of creating narratives—even creating new versions of ourselves—then Anderson has risen to the challenge by giving his story plenty of propulsion. (Interestingly, this is his first feature where he wrote the screenplay on his own, sharing story credit with Hugo Guinness.) As per norm, Anderson is infatuated with the rich, synthetic world he's concocted, but there's such a vividness to his locations (designed by Adam Stockhausen) that they transcend their delicate phoniness to feel like places lost in time. If they don't feel real, it's because in some ways maybe they aren't—they're just romanticized memories inside the characters' minds.
The central storyline concerns the Middle Easterner, Zero (Tony Revolori), as he begins working in the 1930s as a bellboy at the Grand Budapest Hotel, which is run with elegant zeal by Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), a dandyish gentleman who cares for this remote, posh hotel high in the mountains with loving devotion. When he's not instructing Zero on the finer points of customer service, Gustave is romancing the hotel's elderly clientele, serving as a confidant and companion for each of his lovers. Zero is impressionable, while Gustave is haughty and cosmopolitan. They're a mismatched comic duo in search of a caper.
That comes when one of Gustave's aging lovers (Tilda Swinton) dies, leaving behind a valuable painting in her will to him. Infuriated, her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) has Gustave framed for her death, with the police sending him to jail. With no one else to turn to, Gustave asks Zero to break him out, thus beginning an odyssey in which the two seek to clear Gustave's name while trying to shake a fiendish assassin (Willem Dafoe) and an encroaching anonymous foreign army that sure seems like the Nazis. (Such is The Grand Budapest Hotel's alternate reality that everything feels like our world, but is just slightly off.)
In the past, Anderson's movies have stumbled due to their concentration on distinctive, peculiar characters. (There's so much quirk going on, it's as if he never had a chance to really focus on what he wanted these people to do.) That's not a problem with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which skillfully juggles different genres, from the war movie to the romantic drama. (Though she's a bit underused, Saoirse Ronan is terrific as a beguiling love interest for Zero.) Where earlier Anderson efforts have stayed on the sweet/goofy side of the spectrum, there's real darkness and weight to his new movie, which never gets so lost in its dress-up that it overlooks the horrors of the era it's depicting.
And yet, this is also one of his funniest films, largely thanks to an inspired comic turn from Fiennes. We tend to think of the Oscar-nominated actor as a serious thespian who brings gravitas to everything from Schindler's List to The English Patient to the Harry Potter movies. But here he's a hoot, playing a conceited man whose pathological insecurity will soon be revealed. Anderson fans may note a bit of Royal Tenenbaum or Max Fischer to Gustave—someone with more bluster than confidence—but Fiennes brings layers to this pompous fool, exposing the man's core decency slowly. It's a great performance, the kind that gets overlooked come awards time because it's so loose and free that it doesn't feel like a lot of work went into it.
Of course, there are always going to be Anderson detractors who accuse him of being a critic's darling, of making movies that flatter hip audiences with their bookish smarts and ironic remove. (This is why one of the best jokes in that SNL trailer is when it quotes the New York Times's blurb: "You had me at 'Wes Anderson.'") Some folks will like Anderson no matter what he does—they're signing up for the worldview as much as for the films themselves—but it's wrong to say that he keeps making the same movie over and over again. Like Fantastic Mr. Fox, his best because it's the most perfectly imagined, The Grand Budapest Hotel comes bearing an immaculate, beautiful surface that conceals a sad story—in this case, about the passing of time and the stories we tell to create meaning out of our shapeless lives. In a sense, that's Anderson's great theme: His pretty dioramas are an attempt to create consciously fictional worlds that address modern-day dilemmas—dysfunctional families, thwarted dreams, fragile love affairs—in an almost dreamlike manner. But he's never made one quite like this. We're used to a Wes Anderson movie charming us. Get ready for one that's downright thrilling.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.