Wes Anderson’s newest film is many things. The Grand Budapest Hotel qualifies as his most exotically remote achievement in terms of locale; most of it takes place in a fictitious Eastern European province in the early 1930s.
It’s also one of Anderson’s cleverest and most gorgeous movies, dipping just enough of a toe in the real world—and in the melancholy works of its inspiration, the late Austrian writer Stefan Zweig—to prevent the whole thing from floating off into the ether of minor whimsy. I would call The Grand Budapest Hotel major whimsy. It’s a confection with bite, featuring an ensemble led by Ralph Fiennes, here allowed to exercise his farceur’s wiles.
Even when the dialogue slips into jokey anachronisms or less-than-sparkling repartee, Fiennes’ portrayal of M. Gustave, the finest hotel concierge known to humankind, lends an exceptional deftness to the results.
Anderson treats the ravages of the 20th century as a series of echoes through time. The movie begins in the late 1970s, with an unnamed author (played by Tom Wilkinson) taping an interview and relaying the story of his book about a certain, now-vanished hotel in a spa town in the mountains. Zwoop, and we’re back to the 1960s, when the same writer (now played by Jude Law) arrives at the Grand Budapest in its fading communist era of disrepair.
At the hotel, the writer meets the owner (played by F. Murray Abraham) who tells how he came to own the Grand Budapest and how he started out decades earlier as a lobby boy. Anderson skips back and forth in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but mainly we’re in 1932, in the palace’s heyday, between the wars. The plot—and there’s a lot of it—concerns the death of one of the concierge’s aged lovers (Tilda Swinton). She has left to M. Gustave a priceless painting, which her greedy heirs want.
From there, Anderson treats the events as eccentric, elaborate moves on a chessboard, not in fast-motion, but with each development (Gustave’s time in prison; his breakout; the young lobby boy’s romance with the hotel baker) a part of an increasingly threatening game. With his quick smile and avid expression of never missing a trick, Fiennes keeps the top spinning. He resembles, deliberately, the real-life Viennese dandy and public figure Zweig, who was born in 1881 and committed suicide with his wife while in Brazilian exile in 1942.
The Grand Budapest Hotel concerns, among others, the lobby boy, Zero (played by Tony Revolori). Like Zweig, he is a refugee. Saoirse Ronan is Zero’s beloved, Agatha; the rest of the cast is so rich in talent, it’d take a few paragraphs to include all the worthy supporting turns, each speaking in a differently accented English, ranging from Harvey Keitel’s Brooklynese convict to Edward Norton’s officious police chief.
Anderson is attempting a tricky magic act here. But we’re also dealing with encroaching fascism, even if nobody speaks of Nazis in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Some of the violence is jarring, particularly a scene in which Willem Dafoe’s rotten-toothed henchman stalks a lawyer (played by Jeff Goldblum) in and around the local art museum.
Throughout, Anderson revels in the mechanics and the delightful fakery of moviemaking illusions gone by. A frenzied chase on skis, blending stop-motion animation and miniatures, is breathlessly funny.
Sometimes the frivolity feels misplaced. But it’s something of a miracle this obsessively diagrammed project has a human pulse of any kind. The actors give the brittle material life, mostly comic but dramatic when needed. The dolly shots, intricate but not ostentatious, sweep us into the world of M. Gustave’s domain.
The Grand Budapest Hotel may be Anderson’s best since Rushmore. It’s a mirage of what was.