At this point in the director’s career, it may be easier and more instructive to catalog how a new Wes Anderson film is different than its predecessors. For example, his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is packed with all the same ornate, beautifully-realized art direction and costume design, intricately framed images, and absurdist, deadpan humor that has been his hallmark for the bulk of his career. But there’s also a creeping darkness to the humor, like edges of paper blackening against pronounced heat. There’s coarser language and flashes of unabashed sexuality that are somewhat unfamiliar to the director (though that’s not quite true, all of Anderson’s films were rated R until playing to the junior set with The Fantastic Mr. Fox necessitated dialing it back a bit), but there’s also the employment of comic violence that is straight out of the Coen brothers’ toolkit. Even central character M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) recalls the work of the Coens in his use of complicated, almost pompous language to prop himself up in an existence of refined sleaziness. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a sort of offhand caper, a yarn spun by a gentle ruffian with an aspirational appreciation for the finer things.
Despite observations about potential new kindred peers, The Grand Budapest Hotel is unmistakably the work of Anderson. The title setting itself is exactly the sort of mammoth realization of softly-colored, highly detailed beauty–touched with a hint of squalor–that stands as the director’s specialty. Largely taking place in a nineteen-thirties, as the fictional European country that is home to the splendiferous hotel is falling prey to a continental militaristic control that strongly recalls certain German incursions of the time, the film is a farce putting on airs of a genteel drawing room comedy. Gustave is the concierge of the hotel, serving to the every need of his wealthy clientele, including the sexual and emotional gratification of many elderly widows. One of them, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, throwing herself into Anderson’s broad fakery with expected gusto), meets her end in a manner that is somewhat suspicious, a situation further complicated by her callous family’s ire when they discover she’s left a priceless work of art to Gustave. With that story foundation foundation, Anderson and his co-screenwriter Hugo Guinness indulge in a dizzying array of side plots and supporting characters, many played by Anderson’s ever-expanding stock company. As with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson seems to be engaged in a wager with himself to see just how much he can pack into a single film.
If The Grand Budapest Hotel lacks the heart and soulfulness of Anderson’s best work, it has a restless playfulness that’s irresistible in its own right. Some of that is directly attributable to Fiennes’s performance as Gustave, in which the actor is clearly taking great delight in the chance to do something lighter. He’s charming, graceful, and imbued with a pleasingly prickly politesse. No matter how Anderson’s popping confection risks spinning off into oblivion, Fiennes hold it in place, a reliable core. With so much that’s deliberately, forcefully remarkable in Anderson’s film, Fiennes achieves the feat of being grandest of all.