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Who’s your dandy?

Wes Anderson’s latest is typical pomp but it’s also incredibly fun

By this point it’s clear that Wes Anderson has no immediate plans to abandon his signature style his elegant and ever-precise sense of detail and composition or his love of Futura. If anything that sensibility has grown more refined with each film since 1996’s Bottle Rocket. His latest The Grand Budapest Hotel arrives as perhaps the apex of Anderson’s visual pageantry.

Unabashedly lavish and sumptuous — and a period film at that — one might expect all the trappings of a stuffy and tedious costume drama. Thankfully what Anderson has up his (presumably crushed velvet) sleeve is anything but belying the film’s highfalutin visual style to deliver his most exciting and flat-out funny film in years.

Set in the apocryphal European nation of Zubrowka during the interwar years The Grand Budapest Hotel is a traditional rollicking adventure in the best sense. Young protagonist Zero Moustafa (played by outstanding newcomer Tony Revolori) is engaged as a bellboy under the tutelage of the concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). Not long after he’s employed one of the Gustave’s elderly “guests with benefits” (Tilda Swinton) turns up murdered leaving Gustave H. as the prime suspect. With a large inheritance on the line the death sets off an escapade across increasingly tense borders replete with grim heirs (including a faux-Nazi/proto-goth Adrien Brody) fine Dutch masterworks cartoony jailbreaks a secret society of grand hotel concierges a mock SS Brigadoon and a brutal relentless hired assassin (played by a perfectly sinister Willem Dafoe).

As Anderson has managed to gradually expand the scope of his films broadening and swelling while deftly balancing ensemble casts and various storylines The Grand Budapest Hotel stakes the claim as his most narratively ambitious yet. Anderson has experimented with narrators and mediating devices before but never to this extent.

All told the story is recounted through four distinct layers (shot in three distinct aspect ratios): Read as a novel in the present day dictated by the novelist in the 1980s recounted to the novelist by an aged and melancholy Zero Moustafa (played by F. Murray Abraham who narrates most of the film) in the 1960s and then visualized in the 1930s world we inhabit for most of the 99-minute run time.

This structure has its benefits and faults. On the one hand the device of excessive mediation allows the story to take on a life of its own trimming all excess fat until it functions as if through constant kinetic energy. As with any story as it is told retold and refined it only makes sense that it would come to emphasize the exciting the extraordinary and the compelling which is something the film achieves beautifully.

If anything however the story becomes too compelling for its own good. Getting so caught up in the caper narrative (and indeed the film never lags) Anderson seems unable to translate his precision of balancing multiple character threads across narrative layers. Only a handful of times do we return to Zero’s immediate recollection and after being so immersed in the imagined world (even supported with his constant voiceover) it comes as a surprise. The 1960s scenes with the elderly Zero are the most sombre the film gets swapping the pervasive melancholy that defined early masterpieces like The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) for brief moments of punctuated sorrow and nostalgia.

There are moments when Anderson seems tempted to imbue his film with deeper meaning allowing the film’s elegance and refinement to provoke questions concerning the role of cultivation and refinement in society either as a stalwart against brash militarism or more insidiously aligning it with the highly sophisticated fascist machine emerging in the 1930s under national socialism. Like the brief moments of melancholy however such noble goals can at times feel at odds with the capital-S story at the film’s core which can barrel over anything in its path. At worst those goals feel unnecessary but they don’t take away from The Grand Budapest’s Hotel ’s charms.

Swift taut and fresh the film may not be Anderson’s most profound but it proves yet again that everyone’s favourite dandy is showing no signs of retracing or slackening his steps any time soon.

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