Greetings from the 64th annual Berlin Film Festival, where it’s a surprisingly balmy 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit). The weather here may not be business as usual, but the festival looks promising — the competition includes films by Alain Resnais, Lou Ye, Yoji Yamada and Claudia Llosa (whose odd and rather wonderful The Milk of Sorrow won the top prize here, the Golden Bear, in 2009). But first things first: The festival kicks off this evening with Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, also in competition. It was screened for the press this afternoon, but not at the Berlinale Palast, the spacious and accommodating Potsdamer Platz venue where most of the big-ticket action takes place. It was shown instead in a smaller theater nearby, which filled up quickly. The overflow was directed to a second theater in the same complex, but before long we critics and journalists were nestled in comfortably, like mice snuggled in cotton wool, for an afternoon of Anderson’s follies.
Though I have tried many times over the years to like, or even just appreciate, Anderson’s films, with the exception of the work-of-genius Fantastic Mr. Fox, they elude me every time. The Grand Budapest Hotel strikes me as even less of a good thing, although, as its title suggests, it is Anderson’s most elaborate, lavish-looking picture yet.
The framing device for this marzipan monstrosity features an older writer from some fictitious Central European locale, played by Tom Wilkinson, reflecting on his younger days, when he was Jude Law. It was 1968, and our writer friend was camping out at a formerly luxurious, now down-at-the-heels hotel in the Republic of Zubrowka, which was, as a title card tells us in an emphatic parenthetical, “once the seat of an empire.” There he meets a mysterious older gent, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who may be the hotel’s owner. The two sit down to a lavish dinner in the hotel dining room, a storybook stag mural looming nobly behind them.
Mr. Moustafa unravels a woolly tale involving the finest concierge he ever knew, a rather unapologetic gigolo by the name of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) who, in more prosperous prewar days, ran the hotel with the utmost in genteel efficiency. With his decorous bearing and penchant for ornate poetry, Gustave also courted the favors of a number of rich dowagers, among them Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), a wrinkled nervous wreck dressed in velvet robes straight out of Gustav Klimt.
What happens, as Anderson reveals through his static, deadpan camera lens, involves a priceless painting, a protégé, and a stint in prison, where a shirtless Harvey Keitel appears, his sagging flesh adorned with tattoos so crude Lena Dunham might have sketched them. Never let it be said that Anderson skimps on the details. There’s more: a sweet-natured baker whose cheek bears a birthmark in the shape of Mexico (Saoirse Ronan); the delightfully impish Mathieu Amalric in a thankless role as a loyal servant; and Adrien Brody, who has stolen Jean Cocteau’s hair to play Dmitri, Madame D.’s ungrateful, evil son. Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum all step forward to get a light dusting of Andersonia as well.
It’s all so tiny and adorable, in its grandiose way. Anderson is occasionally capable of making me giggle — Wilson’s character is named M. Chuck, which is just silly, but I laughed. Plus, Anderson is a master at casting just the right actor for each of these willfully absurd characters. (Fiennes seems to be having fun with his role — its overstated curlicues are actually pretty subtle in his hands.) But why doesn’t any of this glittering incident seem to matter?
It’s quite possible that fans of Anderson, the corduroy visionary, will love it. But The Grand Budapest Hotel brought out my inner Hunca Munca, of Two Bad Mice fame: This meticulously appointed dollhouse of a movie just went on and on, making me want to smash many miniature plates of plaster food in frustration. I would apologize afterward, of course, because I’m that kind of mouse. But not even the jaunty, percussive score by Alexandre Desplat left a mark: Too much of it sounds recycled from the truly great score Desplat wrote for Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Once again, Anderson has left me unmoved. If I weren’t in such a good mood, and looking forward to the rest of what the Berlinale has to offer, I’d ask you to please pass me that diminutive plate of fake turkey, so that I might dash it to the ground.
Follow Stephanie Zacharek on Twitter at @szacharek