I’m not sure what the formal definition of a masterpiece is, but “The Grand Budapest Hotel” strikes me as something very close. Wes Anderson, who wrote and directed those modern classics “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” now gives us “Downton Abbey” on laughing gas.
Sophisticated and silly, it creates a mad rumpus at center stage while hinting at tragedies waiting in the wings. There are fantastically elaborate comic set-pieces, obsessively detailed puppet-theater art direction and brilliantly crafted action sequences.
This fusion of technical rigor and madcap wit seals Anderson’s claim on the title of America’s finest comic filmmaker.
He nimbly evokes a once-upon-a-time Europe of beaux-arts architecture, comic-opera armies and filigreed pastries. He populates this dream world with a sharply drawn regiment of lunatic aristocrats, plucky commoners and blackguards. As before, Anderson frames his players fastidiously, like gems in an elegant display case.
First among them is Monsieur Gustave, peerless concierge of the Grand Budapest, a gigantic wedding cake of a resort in fictional, alpine Zubrowka. Posture erect to the point of distortion, chin a quarter-inch higher than anyone else’s, this narcissistic fellow is a cross between Jeeves and Pepé Le Pew. Ralph Fiennes plays M. Gustave with leaping eyebrows, tart line readings and a fey nonchalance about Austro-Hungarian sexual repression. Fiennes is 51 now, a specialist in melancholy aloof romantics and villains. But here this comedic late bloomer is a mercurial miracle.
The discursive plot resembles a Russian nesting doll, with four time lines spanning most of a century. As we step back from the present day to the 1930s, the frame shrinks from widescreen to the boxy ratio of prewar studio films. Knockabout comedy plays well in that squarish visual scheme, and what a farce this is. One of M. Gustave’s most satisfied customers, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), expires under mysterious circumstances, leaving him a priceless medieval portrait.
As the poker-faced executor of Madame’s will, Jeff Goldblum spouts gibberish legalese in a tone so blandly astringent it’s almost musical. Madame’s glowering son (Adrien Brody) and his henchman (Willem Dafoe) set out to retrieve the painting by any means necessary. There are breakneck chases and giddy, spectacular cliffhangers.
At M. Gustave’s side is his protégé, lobby boy Zero Moustafa (performed with bright innocence by 17-year-old first timer Tony Revolori). Soaking up his mentor’s words of wisdom, and repaying them with acts of boys’ adventure derring-do, he’s the sidekick who frequently saves the day. He also gets the girl, a brave pastry chef played with winning pluck by Saoirse Ronan. There are significant actors in almost every role: Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Jude Law, for starters.
As various narrators dip in and out of the story, we’re left to wonder how much of it, if any, is true. Throughout the movie, Anderson highlights the fakery involved in his elaborate fantasy. The railway that serves the mountaintop hotel is a paper cutout; the mountain backdrops are matte paintings. If there is a naturalistic moment in this madhouse, I missed it. It’s sheer screwball delight from one of the most original and funny filmmakers ever to work in Hollywood.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
★★★★ out of four stars