The Grand Budapest Hotel -- By now, anyone walking into a theater playing a Wes Anderson movie can pretty much know what to expect from the idiosyncratic filmmaker. Quirky characters, witty dialogue, a distinct color palette and visual images so carefully composed that they could please even the most obsessive-compulsive viewer are all staples of Anderson's specific vision. It's a visual style so distinctive that you could merely witness a single scene and immediately recognize that you could only be watching a Wes Anderson movie.
What you may not know walking into the theater prior to a screening of his new film "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is that Anderson has taken all these familiar elements and introduced a few new ones as well. As a result, he may have just crafted the best film of his career.
As usual, the film features a wonderful collection of actors who must relish the opportunity to work with the celebrated filmmaker. Some familiar faces grace the screen here, like Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody and, of course, no Anderson movie would be complete without Bill Murray on hand to deliver his specifically droll onscreen presence. Meanwhile there are some new ones here as well, like Harvey Keitel playing prison inmate Ludwig, and Willem Dafoe, who makes an effectively menacing hit man, providing a reminder of how crucial these cast ensembles and detailed performances are to the success of Anderson's films.
At the center of the movie, however, sits one of Anderson's greatest character creations in the form of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Feinnes), the exquisitely cultured and unfailingly polite concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel. It is a memorable character fully realized by Ray Feinnes, who delivers a monumentally entertaining and surprisingly heartfelt performance that holds the whole film together.
A framing device explains that the story itself is the recollection of Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) detailing the exploits and adventures he had serving as a bellboy while under Mr. Gustave's supervision. His recollections provide the film with an air of nostalgia and wistful melancholy that haunt every frame and provide scenes with a rewarding level of emotional depth.
The story itself is one of Anderson's most complicated, conveying in thriller form the theft and subsequent search for a priceless artwork that was, in fact, legally bequeathed to Gustave by an elderly paramour Madame D (Tilda Swinton). It is an act that is violently contested by her greedy family, led by her son Dmitri, played by Adrien Brody, whose delightfully devilish performance recalls the mustache-twirling deviousness of Snidely Whiplash.
The ensuing mayhem for this surprisingly plot-driven film features such action movie staples as gun shootouts, physical violence and (brief) sexuality, all filtered through Anderson's distinctly whimsical sensibility.
The unfailingly clever screenplay also delivers the story at a surprising clip. Even when characters are given the chance to have a meaningful moment, such as when Zero informs Gustave how his parents were killed, such poignancy is politely interrupted by Gustave with a reminder that they have just escaped from prison and must, as a result, keep things moving along.
Meanwhile historical aspects such as the fascist occupation of Europe tie Anderson's film to an unprecedented degree of real-life elements, lending a sobering, dark atmosphere to the film. As it turns out, both Gustave and Zero are political refugees, and their experiences serve as lifelong tales of overcoming adversity with humor and an appreciation for the loyalty of ones friends.
For a filmmaker accused of creating fussily crafted cinematic universes that appear entirely divorced from reality, Anderson's dealing with such real-life issues here represents a major achievement. To convey such darkness and elements of violence with such humor and a light touch makes "The Grand Budapest Hotel" nothing short of a masterpiece.
Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and regular columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.