Bill Murray whisked onto the stage wearing a small black hat and funeral formal wear to introduce Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” at the opening night of the Berlin International Film Festival. Murray proclaimed that this was Anderson’s best movie. “It will blow the hair right off your head,” he told the overflow crowd at the Friedrichstadt-Palast with the kind of hyperbole audiences get accustomed to at premieres.
Right, Bill. We’ll be the judge of that!
But here’s the surprise: Murray was absolutely right!
The “Moonrise Kingdom” director has conquered scale and story, and found a perfect balance between humor and deep emotion. His antic period piece about a “liberally perfumed” concierge of a once-grand Eastern European resort, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), and his lobby boy protégé, Zero Moustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori), is charming, wondrous, nostalgic and dazzlingly original.
At the center of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a radiant character study, illuminated by a brilliant yet soulful performance from Fiennes. In his best comic turn to date, Fiennes inhabits a man dedicated to his profession and a fading social order beautifully described in voiceover: “His world had vanished long before he entered it.”
Fiennes gives color and depth to his preening gallant with a penchant for elderly women. Sure, he is blond, vain, and needy, but he also has an abundance of old-world charm. And he demonstrates a genuine affection as he services the elderly widows that regularly visit his hotel. So, if they leave him lavish gifts, does that really diminish their passion?
The plot thickens, as it must, when one of these tottering grande dames (played by Tilda Swinton in aging make-up that would have made Leonardo DiCaprio’s J. Edgar Hoover swoon) dies under dodgy circumstances. Her will names Gustave as a beneficiary, setting into motion her avaricious son (Adrien Brody) and his vicious henchman (Willem Dafoe). The pair pursues Gustave to The Grand to squash him like an unwanted codicil.
All of this is fun and fluid, fueled by marvelous set pieces: a slalom chase down a snowy mountain with sled and skis, a Rube Goldberg of a jail break, a reading of the will straight out of a cockeyed live version of “Clue.” The supporting characters curtsy in and out: Swinton and Murray, F. Murray Abraham and Edward Norton and Bob Balaban and Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan as the Lobby Boy’s beloved baker.
Anderson has mastered a hipster Barbie Dream-house style of set and costume design in movies like 2012’s “Moonrise Kingdom.” Bolstered by a dry wit, with an irony allergy and an ensemble cast of regulars, his movies can come perilously close to being “twee.” The danger is that they glitter like groovy snow globes, but never achieve the kind of emotional resonance toward which Anderson is reaching.
That’s absolutely not the case here. The whole is larger than the set pieces, although those work, too. And Anderson has scaled new heights at the corner of storytelling and emotion. The love he clearly feels for his characters — flawed though they are, petty, vindictive, with an array of sexual peccadilloes and peculiar hairstyles — flows from the screen and seduces the audience.
And, while the elements reflect the merits of “Moonrise Kingdom,” or my favorite, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Anderson paces it perfectly. He gets the balance right between the big and small characters, reveling in the set decoration and costumes but not tripping over the furniture or becoming tangled in the wigs.
The danger here — like Murray’s superlative pronouncement at the premiere’s start that this is Anderson’s best — is to raise expectations too high. This is delicate fluffy stuff, a glorious pastel macaroon of a movie. And it should be savored, not over-thought or overcooked.