You are flung shipwrecked on a desert island. You are not thirsty (there’s a fresh water spring), but you are frantic with hunger. You have a cooking pot and fire materials, but no food. Then a crate marked “Eggs” floats miraculously into view. You seize it, rip it open, only to find not a dozen farmer’s best, nestling in straw, but a selection of Fabergé eggs cocooned in velvet. Despair! Suddenly you are unimaginably, uselessly wealthy. And still starving.
That’s how I felt watching Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. The ornamental riches queue up: production design, star cast, pastiche stylings of gesture, costume, dialogue in a story set in Belle Époque Central Europe. But not a sustaining calorie, narrative or dramatic, in sight. We have been fed on almost-nothing, before, by this filmmaker. His speciality is filigree comedies in designer Neverlands: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox . . . Last up was Moonrise Kingdom, which did have a defiant, slender charm in its mini-effervescent plot about Boy Scout wars.
The new film just has prolixity. An imagination-boggling cast (Swinton, Goldblum, Dafoe, Keitel, Norton, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson . . . ) is gathered for a multi-flashbacked comical chase story – prism’d through two “future” framing episodes – that centres on a hidden painting, a mountain hotel and a knockabout concierge-manager played by Ralph Fiennes.
Poor Fiennes. He can impress, sometimes even spellbind, in different guises: Coriolanus, The English Patient, Schindler’s List. But nimble-heeled farceur is not one. Johnny Depp – a better idea – was once mooted for the role. But I kept thinking of the English actor a moustached and tousled Fiennes here more resembles, Leonard Rossiter. As the comedy kept croppering, and the “plot”, notionally inspired by Stefan Zweig’s stories, grew ever windier, I longed for Rossiter’s crude comic brio: for that alternation – ideal here – between gibbering agility and the mad posturings of the unctuous.
The sets are gorgeous: wedding cake Europe in the 1930s. One or two stars uncork vintage verve. (Swinton is wonderful as a grande dame suffering apparent meltdown of the teeth and jawline.) For the first hour you want passionately to love the film. For the second hour, or much thereof, you want passionately to leave it, casting a few rose petals as you go, for Anderson’s better luck the next time he tries to magic the slight into the show-stopping.