The old, snide rejoinder to an over-decorated show is that "you leave humming the sets," but Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel may be the first movie where you come out tasting them. With apologies to Willy Wonka and his wallpaper-licking visitors, the titular Alpine resort is the most edible-looking lodge in cinema: a multitiered, pink-frosted castle designed to endure as an ambrosial memory.
But the thing about Proustian cakes is that you never get to have them and eat them, too—so the Grand Budapest exists only in the past. It belongs to a lost world of funiculars and crisscrossing cable cars and a ski jump that lands on a bobsled track. (Rendered with stop-motion animation, the impossible geography reminded me of those early Coney Island roller coasters that supposedly grew more popular the more riders' necks they snapped.) The place, an imaginary country called the Republic of Zubrowka, is framed by three flashbacks, each on a different-sized screen. It's already gone before we see it. This image—snowy Mitteleuropa as an ornate playland offering one last pell-mell ride as it melts away—suggests The Third Man's Ferris wheel sequence with a dash of Rube Goldberg, or Nabokov scripting a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Mania and bereavement, flimflam and dignity: These are all gift-wrapped in the hero, M. Gustave, the dapper concierge running the Grand Budapest front desk and back halls. He's played by Ralph Fiennes with such flowery cosmopolitanism that you can almost see the cloud of cologne drifting behind him as he scurries to his next boudoir appointment with a rich dowager. One of the movie's narrators—I mentioned the several flashbacks, right?—describes M. Gustave as protecting a world that vanished before he arrived. (It's no accident that while the movie occurs in a pretend location, its dateline is specifically the 1930s, at the edge of war.) He certainly sees himself as a kind of Knight Templar, reciting poetry and defending his refugee ward, Zero (Tony Revolori), from the secret police. "You see," he crows after one near escape, "there are still faint glimmers of civilization in this barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity." He winds himself up for a longer speech, then reconsiders: "Oh, fuck it."
I'd love to recite my own ode to The Grand Budapest Hotel, because it's the most politically aware story Anderson has told. Its story—a silly caper involving a stolen painting, several corpses, a prison break and pastries—brushes against the deepest horrors of the 20th century, and ends by acknowledging irrevocable damage.
Yet I can't shake the feeling that something's missing. It's become critical shorthand to describe Wes Anderson's movies as increasingly Andersonian, but The Grand Budapest Hotel actually confirms the split of the director's work into three distinct periods. His earliest pictures (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums) feature perpetual teenagers play-acting at the ideal lives they can't quite maintain. His second act (The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited) follows spoiled men globe-trekking for purpose. And then, starting with Fantastic Mr. Fox, come the fairy tales. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom and now Budapest all include the same elements: stop-motion, maps, tunnels, and heroes marching at right angles and dangling from great heights.
What they don't have is characters who talk to each other. Nobody in this latest Anderson chapter admits their feelings in an unguarded way. And with the exception of the fantastically realized M. Gustave, they don't reveal their essence by actions. Instead, the packed cast—a Bill Murray-led reunion of the best repertory since Preston Sturges' team—make cameos and disappear.
So the feeling of loss that runs through an otherwise buoyant picture is twofold: It's pining for the world Anderson mourns, and longing for people never met. Who are these beautiful visitors in The Grand Budapest Hotel? They're meant to be ghosts, but they shouldn't be strangers. We stick out our tongues to catch the shimmering snowflakes, and taste only air.
Critic's Guide: B+
SEE IT: The Grand Budapest Hotel is rated R. It opens Friday at Cinema 21.