By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Once again we find ourselves in acquired-taste Andersonville.
That is, the world of Wes Anderson, whose comedies are nearly always adroit and admirable, crowded with the eye-catching visual details of an artificially alternate universe.
But they’re rarely emotionally accessible as they allow style to trump substance.
That’s pretty much the case with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which has the usual impressive Andersonian flourishes -– with camerawork, production design, editing, music, costumes, miniatures, backdrops, and ensemble performances that snap, crackle, and pop. And while we are not necessarily active participants, we continue to be grateful, entertained spectators.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, a story within a story within a story, is set in the fictional Eastern European republic of Zubrowka between World War I and World War II as a fondly recalled and nostalgically missed Old World era comes to a close at a thriving spa resort.
Ralph Fiennes –- playing comedy, of all things! -– is Monsieur Gustave, the heavily perfumed, part-time concierge of the titular establishment who moonlights full time as a con artist, seducing the wealthy elderly women who register as guests.
He’s assisted by a lobby boy named Zero, played by Tony Revolori, who will become a friend of Gustave’s and grow up to tell this story.
One of those conquests, an octogenarian countess played under a mountain of makeup by Tilda Swinton, passes away, thus triggering a furious battle over her will, which involves the fabulous family fortune and a priceless Renaissance painting that gets stolen.
Distinctively idiosyncratic writer-director Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore) continues to work at a considerable distance from reportorial reality.
To help him reimagine this skewed world, he does a roll call of his virtual repertory company, which makes for a very crowded hotel, as Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzmann, Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Jude Law, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Saoirse Ronan, Tom Wilkinson, Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric, and Bob Balaban parade through.
Sometimes that guest register gets a little too crowded for those of us hoping to connect less superficially with the film’s central characters. But the melancholy theme of yearning for yesterday while letting go of the past registers vividly.
The performance that stands out and corrals its share of belly laughs is that of Fiennes as the fastidious and abusive control freak, to some extent because it is so atypical, an uncharacteristically broad reading and a bracing display of comic timing from the usually intensely serious Fiennes. Who does just fine.
The Anderson movie that the cartoon-like Grand Budapest Hotel is actually most reminiscent of is his 2009 animated fable, Fantastic Mr. Fox, which also wrapped itself in whimsy and throwaway charm, with similarly successful results.
So we’ll register 3 stars out of 4 for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Go, Wes young man, and apply that Anderson touch.