Wes Anderson is something of an enigma, one of the most revered filmmakers of the last fifteen years whose undisputed talent as such has led to only a rare few entirely realized motion pictures. His arguable breakthrough effort, 1998's "Rushmore
," is a coming-of-age masterwork that fully and without fail blends the director's by-now signature, oft-copied and -parodied style with a sweeping emotional core that speaks breathtakingly about adolescence and the journey toward finding purpose and growing up. Since then, there have been lesser successes (2001's "The Royal Tenenbaums
"), near-hits that narrowly miss the mark (2007's "The Darjeeling Limited
" and 2012's "Moonrise Kingdom
"), and a beautiful but stilted stop-motion feature (2009's "Fantastic Mr. Fox
"). Unable to replicate that "Rushmore" sweet spot, Anderson has since built a figurative fortress around his passion projects, suffocating their hoped-for dramatic resonance in arch behavior and stiff aesthetic technique. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is ambitious, layered and excitingly different, furnished in stainless, whimsical, drool-worthy art direction. It is also baroquely unfeeling, keeping the viewer consistentlyand disappointinglyat arm's length.
In a Russian nesting doll of a story more cohesive that it is likely to sound, an older writer (Tom Wilkinson) in 1985 reminisces about a time in 1968 when his younger self (Jude Law) stayed at the ornate, deteriorating Grand Budapest Hotel, located in the mountainous Eastern European country of Zubrowska. It is here that he meets the aging Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who weaves the wild tale of how he became the wealthy unlikely owner of the hotel. In 1932, Middle Eastern immigrant Zero (Tony Revolori) is a lowly lobby boy at the Grand Budapest, taken under the wing of brash head concierge Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). When one of Gustave's longest patrons and oldest lovers, 84-year-old Madame Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Tilda Swinton), is found dead under questionable circumstances, he is surprised to discover she has left him an expensive painting in her will. The deceased lady's greedy family are irate over this turn of events. What follows are a series of conspiratorial schemes and a case of murder and blackmail involving devious son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and hired assassin Jopling (Willem Dafoe) that leads to Gustave being framed for Madame D.'s death. With the help of Zero and his sweet-natured fiancée, confectionary baker Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), the imprisoned concierge prepares his escape in hopes of proving his innocence. All of this, by the way, is being read in the present day by a black-bobbed teenage girl (Jella Niemann) sitting in the shadow of the now-deceased author's monument.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a production designer's dream, a genre-galloping madcap comedy, twisty thriller, crime caper and war-torn drama all at once. The film's play for existentialism in the wraparound segments are at odds with the brazenly off-the-wall lark in between, stripping it of its would-be poignancy. It does not help that, as detail-oriented as the movie's lavish appearance is, the characters are sorely, harmfully underdeveloped. With their surfaces barely scratched, they race around in the midst of a superficial script that doesn't know when to calm down long enough to listen to themor, for that matter, allow them to say anything of insight or worth at all. It is terribly sad to not care about anything happening on the screen when so much of what is in front of the camera is visually impressive. The exterior of the fictional Grand Budapest Hotel, sitting among the snowy alpines, a stately deer perched upon a nearby cliff and a diagonal tram out front, is the sort of new sight never before glimpsed. It is nearly equaled by what lurks inside the majestic building and beyond, with prisons, trains, cliffs and the summit at Gabelmeister's Peak a feast for the eyes.
With few exceptions, the voluminous ensemble cast members are so wasted it wouldn't be out of the question to kick off a criminal investigation into the matter. Ralph Fiennes (2012's "Skyfall
") and Tony Revolori are the two constants as Monsieur Gustave H. and Zero Moustafa, the former particularly loose and game as a concierge ready and willing to service his guests in every
way possible. Supporting players range from a humorously vicious Adrien Brody (2011's "Midnight in Paris
") as Dmitri, to Edward Norton (2012's "The Bourne Legacy
") as Inspector Henckels, to Saoirse Ronan (2013's "The Host
") as the fair, gentle Agatha, to F. Murray Abraham (2013's "Inside Llewyn Davis
") as the elder Zero Moustafa, to Jude Law (2013's "Side Effects
") as the eager young writer, to an aged-up Tilda Swinton (2011's "We Need to Talk About Kevin
") as the elderly Madame D., to Jeff Goldblum (2010's "Morning Glory
") as ill-fated executor of Madame D.'s estate Deputy Kovacs, to Jason Schwartzman (2013's "Saving Mr. Banks
"), Bill Murray (2014's "Monument Men
") and Owen Wilson (2013's "The Internship
") as a roundabout of concierges. Parts range from ten or fifteen minutes of screen time, tops, to blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos, yet they all share equal baffling billing in the movie's promotional materials. Even if the briefest of parts were unbilled, the way these notable actors are misused would still be pitiful.
Inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is irritating in its stiltedness and contains only the faintest wisp of warmth. Short of going really far out of his comfort zone and making a horror movie in the vein of the "Saturday Night Live" spoof trailer "The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders," Anderson needs to take a step back and reassess how to keep his unique shooting style in future projects while finding the breadth of humanity they call for. There are hints of themes about the fleeting passage of time and the delicate nature of life itself, but these are all but buried by the filmmaker's disregardful, tonally-too-light plot and the undernourished juggling of his two-dimensional characters. Instead of concluding with the simple, eloquent, low-key oomph it should, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" evokes frustrating indifference. It's an awfully pretty picture, but where is its soul?