gbhAcross several films now, Wes Anderson has created an image for himself as an iconoclastic proprietor of darkly whimsical, literary-minded fairy tales that bear such a firm authorial stamp that are impossible in any way to emulate. Perhaps none more so than his latest wildly original opus The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film closer in anarchic comedic tone to his work on The Life Aquatic and Fantastic Mr. Fox, but also bearing a lot more inner turmoil than he’s mustered before. It’s a continually laugh out loud romp that’s content having a lot of silly fun, but it all comes within a framework so dark that to strip away all of the humour would make it a tragedy.

In a decaying hotel a former lobby boy and current owner (F. Murray Abraham) of what was once one of the swankiest resorts in the fictional European republic of Zubrowka relates the story of the most important time in his life to an author who happens to be passing through (Jude Law). The story begins in the 1930s with the lobby boy’s mentorship under the hotel’s flamboyant and selfish bisexual, geriatric loving concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). When one of Gustave’s paramours passes away, both men are brought into a fight over the custody of a valuable painting with the deceased’s family (headed by a bigoted and practically moustache twirling Adrien Brody) that will eventually lead to Gustave being framed for murder in a country on the brink of a Nazi-styled takeover.

Anderson deploys all the tools in his arsenal without any real restraint, but that’s part of the charm. It’s a film that’s almost as much about the love of watching a Wes Anderson film as it is about the story itself. Beneath the familiar tropes of main characters with parental issues and stubbornly heroic men trying to bluff their way out of dangerous situations they have essentially brought upon themselves there lays a deeply personal subtext that feels like Anderson searching for a way to apologize for something that’s just beyond his reach. Amid all the sight gags, incredibly witty banter, and a sprawling all-star cast of largely Anderson regulars capable of stealing scenes at any time lies a palpable sadness that only increases as the film goes on, continuing to get darker and leading to an admittedly bittersweet conclusion that finds Anderson backhandedly questioning his own place in the world as a writer of fictions and philosophically wondering if anyone will remember him after he’s gone. Most people will take notice of the film being his most openly transgressive, boundary pushing, and certainly most violent effort to date. None of that makes the film any less hilarious and it only serves to make the increasingly outlandish, Rube Goldbergian set pieces all the more effective. It’s unrestrained whimsy, but with a real sense of investment and stakes.

It’s also a credit to Fiennes, who hasn’t been given a role this detail-oriented and refined in quite some time, that he’s able to create a persona that can exist outside of Anderson’s direction while still playing into the themes of the film perfectly. Gustave isn’t a particularly likeable guy, but Fiennes’ chemistry with Tony Revolori’s young ward adds the warmth and heart necessary to make the audience care about what ultimately happens to him.

It’s not Anderson’s best work, but it feels a lot like spending some quality time with a creative genius hanging out in his own sandbox that someone just decided to roll a camera on. It’s another singularly unique work in an already distinguished and still relatively young career.

The Grand Budapest Hotel opens in Vancouver on March 14 at select theatres. March 28 in Calgary.

By Andrew Parker

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