Moonrise Kingdom was more than just a good movie; it was a statement of intent by writer/director/hipster-diety Wes Anderson, planting his flag firmly in a plot of land that we never doubted was his. His first live-action feature since 2007's divisive The Darjeeling Limited, it seemed like the perfect time for the auteur to take a detour, his candy-coated aesthetic and dryly-delivered life lessons quickly becoming overly familiar in the eyes of many. He, of course, did nothing of the sort; Kingdom is perhaps the most Wes Anderson-y film of the guy's entire career, its breezy comedy and big heart quashing nearly all arguments in favor of change. No American filmmaker creates movies quite like Anderson, an artist who seems content to paint with the very same colors every time out, exploring new notions within familiar territory. As is we needed further confirmation, The Grand Budapest Hotel is yet more proof that in Wes' world, variety takes a backseat to constancy.
The film's namesake is a towering, gaudy palace, first witnessed in a state of near-ruination in the late 1960's, then observed in its 1930's heyday. Though the initial set-up involves a bit of narrative trickery, the meat of the story follows Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the establishment's first-class concierge, an exacting and earnest control freak who's none too shy about his appetite for older women. We view his escapades through the eyes of Zero (Tony Revolori), the recently-hired lobby boy whom Gustave takes under his wing. When one of the concierge's recently deceased flames bequeaths him an invaluable painting, it sets in motion a plot involving war, deceit, love, mystery, and zany hi-jinx.
The film's opening frames are an absolute delight, introducing notions and characters with a deftly assured hand, even establishing a rich sense of nostalgia-tinged melancholy, a new look for the auteur. But what first reads like Anderson's most narratively complex vision to date has a nasty habit of continuously devolving, its writerly worldview eventually being crowded out by a surplus of action sequences and wacky character ticks. Some have suggested that Budapest represents a more mature Anderson, war and death ever drifting right around its edges, but the film never truly focuses in on these lofty themes, allotting its time instead to innumerable chuckle-worthy cameos and a chase scene straight out of Fantastic Mr. Fox. The film also bares a strange affinity for violence; these scenes are too gruesome and mean-spirited to coax much laughter, and too clumsy to properly comment on the war-time anxieties of the region. Simply put, the flick struggles to balance heart with farce, especially during its harried, frantic final act.
While I'm not completely over-the-moon about The Grand Budapest Hotel, the film has at least two things in common with literally every other Anderson picture: A dazzling and exacting visual design, and at least one wonderfully memorable character. The sets here, a mixture of miniatures, models, and real locations, teem with life and vibrancy, each bright, ecstatic color chosen for a distinct purpose. Production designer Adam Stockhausen and costumer Milena Canonero should be headed for Oscar nominations come next February, but that's not to ignore what cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman does for the picture, employing depth-of-frame and aspect ratio trickery with liberal abandon. Then there's Fiennes, having an absolute ball with a film worlds removed from his normative serious-minded fare. His body language and various nuances bring to life a character who might easily have become cloying and obnoxious in the hands of a less gifted thespian. Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Tom Wilkinson, and (especially) F. Murray Abraham all turn in ace performances in pocket-sized supporting roles, but this is really Fiennes movie. In the end, The Grand Budapest Hotel is kind of a mixed bag, neither outstanding enough to sway Anderson hold-outs, nor poor enough to dissuade anyone who's already on his side.