The problem at the heart of the argument of detractors who accuse Wes Anderson's oeuvre of being one-note is an inability to separate form from content. While aesthetically speaking, his films all share a love of the ornate and carefully framed that make them all feel like part of a whole, focusing entirely on his means of presentation ignores how effective of a storyteller he's developed into over the course of his career. Since The Fantastic Mr. Fox especially, Anderson has managed to sustain a beautiful melancholy through the duration of his pictures that he was only able to achieve momentarily in works prior (think Ben Stiller's one sentence confession to Gene Hackman at the end of The Royal Tenenbaums or the group catharsis provided Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic). The Grand Budapest Hotel is a continuation of this narrative maturation for Anderson, and while his detractors will have no shortage of ammunition to attack him with (the setting for this film is the apotheosis of his dollhouse aesthetic), to do so would be to seriously shortchange a supremely confident filmmaker working at the absolute peak of his game.
After applying a matryoshka doll-style structure to the proceedings we're introduced to Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, never better), concierge at the immaculate Grand Budapest Hotel, located in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka and only reachable via funicular (I can already sense the blood pressure spiking in Anderson detractors). We follow him through the eyes of our narrator, Zero (played beautifully by both F. Murray Abraham and newcomer Tony Revolori), a lobby boy hand-selected to be Gustave's protege, and follow both through the ages as one of Gustave's elderly conquests (Tilda Swinton) dies under mysterious circumstances and wills to him an invaluable painting much to the consternation of her menacing heir Dmitiri (played with vulgar relish by Adrien Brody). The number of fantastic performances on display are too numerous for my word count (as always, the Wes Anderson Players and newcomers alike all are immaculately cast), but rest assured the film is exquisitely performed down to the smallest bit part.
This is a storytelling mode Anderson hasn't really tried up until this point – a straight-up caper filled with coded messages, daring prison escapes and murderous attempts at claiming inheritances. It allows him to fully indulge in set piece construction in a way he's never been allowed before, with an alpine high-speed pursuit and museum chase proving to be particular highlights. There's also a violence and a glibness in enacting it that we've never seen in his work up until this point, a darkness approaching not only the narrative, but over the world at large at this particular fictionalized moment in history, which is again where the melancholy begins to seep into this dazzling confection. From the very outset, when we see the Grand Budapest having succumbed to the ravages of time all the way to the end, when one character remarks as to the efficacy with which the illusion of immaculate order was maintained in the hotel's heyday, there's a very palpable sense of loss that permeates the entire proceedings. Make no mistake, Grand Budapest Hotel is as effortless and breezy an entertainment as Wes Anderson has ever concocted, but it's a puff pastry that sticks to the ribs, managing Lubitsch-level lightness (about as high a praise as I could ever bestow) even as darkness encroaches from all sides.