Here is the first great movie of 2014—and not a moment too
soon. I run hot and cold on Wes Anderson’s work, but this film captivated me
completely. It may have something to do with the time period and setting
(Eastern Europe between the two world wars), but I think it has as much to do
with Anderson’s inspired filmmaking.
In each of his pictures he creates a world all its own. Here, that world is thoroughly invented down to the tiniest detail, although it has its roots in the reality of luxe living in the 1920s, as the well-to-do knew it. The main character is Monsieur Gustave H, a suave, confident concierge at the impossibly elegant Grand Budapest Hotel in Zubrowka. He is accustomed to treating his guests with the utmost deference and seeing to their every need, be it social or sexual, which is why he is revered. M. Gustave takes on a young protégé (newcomer Tony Revolori) as his lobby boy and aide-de-camp, which comes in handy as the usually unflappable concierge finds himself in trouble with the law.
Anderson clearly spent time watching vintage Lubitsch films to capture the essence of period elegance and charm, but even that master of sophisticated comedy never made a caper film in which dialogue is delivered at machine-gun speed and non-sequiturs rule the day.
Ralph Fiennes gives a heroically hilarious performance as M. Gustave, a nimble-witted fellow who, for all his polish, is quite plain-spoken when the occasion demands. This is flawless acting that—dare I say it—would be worthy of an Academy Award if anyone remembers it nine months from now. He is surrounded by other skillful actors at the top of their game, including F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Mathieu Amalric, and Wes Anderson regulars Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Bill Murray.
What’s more, the film is breathtaking to behold. Told in a series of flashbacks, the vintage scenes are even shot in the 1:37 ratio we associate with movies of that period. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman, who’s worked on all of Anderson’s films, production designer Adam Stockhausen, and costume designer Milena Canonero deserve particular kudos for bringing the director’s unique vision to life. No one else working in films today would dare use miniatures, matte paintings, or stop-motion animation in such a witty and original way. Sometimes, Anderson’s devotion to detail can overwhelm his screenplay, as I feel it did in Moonrise Kingdom, but this film feels completely organic, a perfect synthesis of concept and execution. (Anderson shares story credit with Hugo Guinness, and acknowledges his debt to Viennese writer and man-of-the-world Stefan Zweig.)
As usual, composer Alexandre Desplat contributes a lively and surprising score, which is capped off by a balalaika orchestra over the closing credits. Be sure not to leave the theater until they’re over; if you do, you’ll be cheating yourself. This is a movie you’ll want to savor, from start to finish.