The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s latest textured bout of brilliance, is a display of such detail that it actually out-layers the filmmaker’s original dollhouse masterwork (and still best film) The Royal Tenenbaums. Not only is it also an adaptation of a pretend novel, but it additionally depicts the novel being written, originally told to the author, and illustrates those events while seamlessly leaping between periods when appropriate.
Set in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, the film opens with a modern day student (Jella Niemann) visiting the grave of the national hero author to read the source material. Opening the text, we move to a monologue by the author (Tom Wilkinson) in 1985 that’s lifted almost word-for-word from the introduction to German writer (and film inspiration) Stefan Zweig’s lone novel, Beware of Pity.
From there, we flash back to 1968 where the author (now played by Jude Law) visits the on-the-decline Grand Budapest and befriends the hotel’s owner, Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham). In the near-empty dining room, Zero shares the 1932 escapades of when he was a refugee lobby boy (newcomer Tony Revolori, in the finest teenage acting in an Anderson film since Jason Schwartzman’s in Rushmore) at the then prestigious resort. To further augment the throwback tone, the picture jumps from widescreen to the boxy 1.37:1 “Academy ratio” of old for the ’32 scenes, a decision that quickly pays dividends.
The scrumptious labyrinthine narrative and cast pedigree established, Anderson dives into the story of Grand Budapest concierge M. Gustave, whose old school manners, ubiquitous Le Panache cologne, and taste for the hotel’s older clientele marks him as a man whose “era was over long before he was born” (a label which also holds true for Anderson). Embodied by Ralph Fiennes, effortlessly inserting himself into Anderson’s world as if he was there for its inception, M. Gustave guides viewers and Zero through the hotel’s lavish and painstakingly created interiors with many a laugh along the way.
Upon learning the death of 84-year-old Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, in gloriously excessive make-up), M. Gustave and Zero rush to this favorite patron’s estate where greedy relatives have gathered for the reading of her will. When the surprise bequeathing of the exquisite painting “Boy with Apple” to M. Gustave infuriates assumed heir Dmitri (Adrien Brody), the co-workers flee with psychotic henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe, a fine Anderson staple) in pursuit.
These are only the beginning of The Grand Budapest Hotel’s charms and as M. Gustave is wrongly convicted of murdering Madame D. and lands in prison, the adventure grows along with the already impressive ensemble. Of particular note, Edward Norton transitions nicely from his Moonrise Kingdom scoutmaster to a ranking offer in the SS substitute Zig-Zags, Harvey Keitel is at his gruff best as a tattooed cellmate of M. Gustave, and Saoirse Ronan sweetly dons her native Irish accent as Zero’s pastry chef love Agatha, complete with a “why the hell not?” Mexico-shaped birthmark on her right cheek.
On top of all that is a marvelous sequence in which The Society of the Crossed Keys, a covert network of Europe’s great concierges, essentially play “Telephone” to coordinate help for their incarcerated comrade. Bill Murray, Wally Wolodarsky (Brendan from The Darjeeling Limited), Fisher Stevens, Waris Ahluwalia (Vikram from The Life Aquatic), and Bob Balaban do the honors and electrify an already vibrant experience.
Consistent with Anderson’s catalog, the visual and storytelling delights never cease in The Grand Budapest Hotel and fresh details such as Fiennes’ punctuated profanity are welcome additions. The director’s first screenplay composed without a co-writer, which arguably posits it as his most pure vision to date, the film’s greatest accomplishment may be that it ends leaving one yearning for more, wisely escaping before anything has a chance to compromise this superb achievement.
Rated R for language, some sexual content and violence.