The rap on Wes Anderson is that he doesn't make movies so much as build castles in the air. To Anderson haters, from Bottle Rocket and Rushmore to Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, his films reek of pressed flowers, too stale and studied to feel for.
To the rest of us, the 44-yearold Texan is one of the few original stylists working in modern cinema. The Grand Budapest Hotel, the new Anderson film that opened to raves at the Berlin Film Festival, won't silence his detractors. It's a filigreed toy box of a movie, so delicious-looking you may want to lick the screen. It is also, in the Anderson manner, shot through with humor, heartbreak and a bruised romantic's view of the past. It is also, not in the Anderson manner, a rollicking caper that mixes theft, murder, a prison break and pastry recipes into a rousing free-forall that speeds by like a dervish.
Set in a fictional European spa town between the world wars, with Nazis on the march and an elegant way of life under siege, The Grand Budapest Hotel pivots around the character of Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel concierge who believes that etiquette helps define civilization. Gustave's morals are no match for his manners as he enjoys sexual congress with guests of both sexes. It's a feast of a role, and Fiennes, exuding Olympian verbal dexterity, nails every comic and dramatic nuance. He's sensational.
Anderson cleverly surrounds Gustave with glorious liars, lovers and clowns. Newcomer Tony Revolori excels as Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy Gustave takes under his wing. The vain concierge flirts with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), Zero's true love, who carries a facial birthmark shaped like Mexico. Agatha works at Mendl's bakery, where her famed pastry, Courtesan au chocolat, helps thicken the plot.
And, boy, does the plot thicken when the unforgettable Tilda Swinton, covered in wrinkly latex, shows up as Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis, an 84-yearold dowager with a thing for Gustave. It's the murder of Madame D and a stolen Renaissance painting that puts Gustave and Zero on the run from cops, led by Inspector (Edward Norton) and Dmitri (Adrien Brody), Madame D's ruthless son, and his henchman Jopling, a killer played all in black by a killer-funny Willem Dafoe, a Dr. Strangelove cruel enough to throw a cat out a window.
As the film spins on its axis like a Marx Brothers farce, a peak of hilarity is hit when Gustave and Zero escape prison with the help of a tattooed Harvey Keitel. Characters tumble out with frenzied unpredictability, including Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman as a trio of wacky concierges. Abetted by Robert Yeoman's luscious camerawork and a bouncy score by Alexandre Desplat, the film has a careless ease that's irresistible.
Anderson, of course, wants to create more than the movie equivalent of a pastry from Mendl's. He frames his film with an older Zero (F. Murray Abraham) telling his story to a young writer (Jude Law). Anderson credits Viennese writer Stefan Zweig for inspiring the script he wrote with Hugo Guinness. And critics at Berlin couldn't refrain from comparing the film to the 1930s classics of Ernst Lubitsch.
My advice is, don't let academic analysis bury the pleasures of beholding Anderson in a wonderland of his own making. His abiding love for a vanished past, real and imagined, is at the core of The Grand Budapest Hotel. The thrill comes in watching as this rare talent gives his movie wings.