There is no magic number of films directors must make before their work comes into full focus. Orson Welles really only needed Citizen Kane. Quentin Tarantino had to make two movies to get there.
Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood didn't do his best and most representative work until he was in his 70s. Over the course of seven feature films, Wes Anderson has raised idiosyncrasy to something of an art form. His eighth film is the masterpiece they were all on their way to becoming.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson's finest work for a number of reasons, refinement chief among them. The ideas he's been forging since Rushmore (and perhaps even since the seemingly disconnected maiden voyage, Bottle Rocket) are all on display. He's worked on his tone, his character development, his dialogue and his unique visual sensibilities over the last decade and a half, but never all of them as completely or as in unison as here.
M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) is the concierge of concierges. He runs the Grand Budapest Hotel in Zubrowka, a European country caught between warring neighbors in what we would otherwise identify as early World War II. The hotel bustles with elite clientele and M. Gustave ensures all their wants and needs are taken care of, whipping his staff into an army of anonymous caretakers.
After the war, the reputation of the hotel slowly fades, and by the time a young writer (Jude Law) comes to visit in the late 1960s, it is a shell of its former self. But the writer is intrigued by the palatial hotel's history and strikes up a conversation with its owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who reflects on those glory days of the 1930s when he came to work at the Grand Budapest.
Zero (played as a teenager by Tony Revolori) was a mere lobby boy, but he became Gustave's most trusted confidant. So when the concierge is arrested on suspicion of murder of one of the hotel's longtime guests—he allegedly seduced her to acquire a larger share of a massive estate in her will—Gustave has no one to turn to but Zero.
The lobby boy works feverishly to help his boss escape prison and those who concocted the scheme against him in the first place, turning the movie into an old-fashioned chase picture. The best sequence in the second half of the film involves Gustave and Zero sledding in hot pursuit of a mysterious heavy (Willem Dafoe) as he skis down a slalom course. The scene is deliriously sped up so the action is nearly impossible to follow.
It is delightful to see Ralph Fiennes play comedy so broadly. He has not always done heavy dramatic turns, although when you're most famous for portraying the worst Nazi imaginable, in Schindler's List, and Voldemort in Harry Potter, that might color the perception. But if you've seen In Bruges, you know he's capable of more than just the darkest recesses of humankind. It's not hyperbole to say a performance this good by an actor so highly revered, at a time of the year when it isn't expected, might help keep The Grand Budapest Hotel in awards discussions for another 10 months. Fiennes is utterly fantastic (and wildly, beautifully profane) in what will almost certainly be one of the most interesting offerings in 2014.
The film, of course, looks remarkable. Credit the production and art direction, and Anderson's longtime cinematographer, Robert Yeoman, for imbuing Grand Budapest with so much color and so many details. It often goes overlooked how central to the success of a film these technical achievements are, but with a picture like this, from a director who always presents a world that's slightly off-balance, they're absolutely essential.
About the only knock on this film is that it becomes a little too self-referential for a few minutes. It's mostly inconsequential, but there are some cameos the film would be better off without. It is fortunately a self-contained sequence (and it gives Anderson a chance to work in some of his regular contributors) but it's largely an unnecessary add-on.
The Grand Budapest Hotel confirms once and for all that Wes Anderson is a true cinematic artist, and there aren't too many of those. That might sound like hipster praise, but whatever. His over-the-top artificiality has become every bit his hallmark as cartoon violence has for Tarantino, but that's not what makes him an artist. For that, you have to look below or behind the suede elbow patches and characters feverishly scrawling handwritten notes.
Anderson creates wonderfully absurd playgrounds for his imagination, but when he's at his best, the stories are almost commonly human. In this instance, it also manages to be extremely funny. Strip away the highbrow touches and his unique style, and The Grand Budapest Hotel would still be a riot.