It's been a long time since a Wes Anderson film has gotten me completely on its side. I admired "Moonrise Kingdom," and its lighthearted youth romance almost won me over, but I didn't quite connect with it the way that many other fans were able to. It was the same with "Fantastic Mr. Fox," "Darjeeling Limited," and "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou." However, I'm happy to report that "Grand Budapest Hotel" hit all the right buttons.
Nested in a narrative structure that incorporates multiple time periods and several different layers of storytelling devices, we are presented with the tale of a young man named Zero (Tony Revolori), who becomes a Lobby Boy at the once famed Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional European country of Zubrowka, in the brief time between the World Wars. In this position he becomes the loyal protege of the hotel's legendary concierge, Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes). Zero and Gustave become caught up in a series of adventures after Gustave inherits a valuable piece of art from one of his elderly female admirers, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), and is framed for her murder. The pair have encounters with many colorful characters as they struggle to uncover the truth, including a young pastry chef named Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), who Zero falls in love with.
I think the reason why "Grand Budapest Hotel" worked for me while "Moonrise Kingdom" and many of the other Anderson films didn't, has to do with the way it's executed. The artifice of the "Grand Budapest Hotel" universe is no less obvious than it was in any of the other films, but this time we're given a bridge of sorts from reality to Anderson's meticulous dollhouse dreamscape. Zero's adventures in the 1930s are relayed by the older Zero (F. Murray Abraham) to a novelist (Jude Law) in the 1960s, who writes a book about them in the 1980s, which is being read by an unknown girl in the present day. Thus the events have obviously been colored by being relayed second-hand, by the nostalgia of two different storytellers, and by being adapted into different mediums. This is nicely emphasized by Anderson using different film aspect ratios for the brief scenes in other time periods. Thus, it's easier to accept the characters being larger than life, the madcap plot developments, and the occasional jaunts into the absurd and the fantastic.
The change of scenery is also helpful. I find the continental aesthetics of "Grand Budapest Hotel" tremendously more appealing than Anderson's usual evocations of the vintage Americana of his youth. Here the amalgam of different period European designs, nods to various 30s and 40s cinema classics, and a fantastic color scheme full of bright pinks and purples and turquoises reveal the director's style is far more malleable than I've given him credit for. His composition skills and eye for detail are as impressive as always. What really sells it, though, are the performances. Ralph Fiennes playing the romanticized caricature of the ultimate concierge is a delight, and makes you wish that he did more comedy. He's a wonderful addition to Anderson's regular troupe of actors, many of whom also make appearances here. Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe are the villains, Edward Norton is a train inspector, Harvey Keitel is a convict, and Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman pop by for minor roles.
Another major change is the humor. This is the closest Anderson has come to making a pure genre film, in this case an old-fashioned screwball comedy. While there's still a good deal of the deadpan absurdity and ironic dialogue of the "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tennenbaums" variety, there's also lots of straightforward slapstick and gags in the mix, which are much easier to appreciate. Since "Fantastic Mr. Fox," Anderson has been incorporating the wilder imagery and visual language of animation into his films, and he's particularly successful at it here - more successful than his efforts when he was making an actual animated film, in fact. There's an escape sequence that delivers so much rapid-fire physical humor, it's like watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon starring Ralph Fiennes. Then there's a brief chase sequence rendered with stop-motion animation, which shouldn't work as well as it does.
And yet, the story retains a strong emotional core and Anderson's usual explorations of parent-child relationships are firmly front and center. This is one of his more sentimental films, a tribute to filmmakers and filmmaking of eras long past. And I'm always a sucker for these kinds of movies, which is probably the biggest reason why I liked "Grand Budapest Hotel" so much. I don't think its his best, but it's the first Wes Anderson picture in ages that I've enjoyed wholeheartedly. And best of all, it's proof of Anderson growing and changing as a director, perhaps for the better.