The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson's eighth, and most ambitious, teeming film, begins in a sort of familiar here-and-now, in a European city cemetery: A student, clutching a book and sporting punky pins on her coat, approaches the memorial of a man cited only as "The Author." On the pedestal, beneath his bust, people have hung what look like hotel keys, totems from devotees.
Cut to 1985, and the Author himself (it's Tom Wilkinson), speaking into a camera from index cards, reflects on the writer's role and the events he has famously chronicled.
Cut to 1968, and the Author is a younger man (Jude Law), tweedy, bespectacled, toting a pipe, a solitary guest at a vast ruin of a hostelry: the Grand Budapest, once the pinnacle of style and taste, home to travelers from all corners, now a tattered place, barely staffed, barely breathing. The Author finds himself curious about a man seated in the lobby, and soon enough they meet. The man - a bearded gent in turtleneck and velour, a twinkle in his eye, wrinkles in his face (it's F. Murray Abraham's) - tells his tale.
Cut to 1932, and Anderson's (and cowriter Hugo Guinness') story is off and running.
Boy, is it ever.
A sublime construction, as intricately outfitted as the titular edifice itself, The Grand Budapest Hotel bears all the trademark obsessions of the idiosyncratic filmmaker: beautiful objects, dollhouse tableaus, actors in deadpan mode, as though they expect someone to thwack them with a blunt instrument, but they're ready to troop on undeterred.
If you consider Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson's 2009 Oscar-nominated stop-motion animated gem, a turning point in his career, followed by the live-action tween elopement adventure Moonrise Kingdom (real human actors, but in a serious state of make-believe), then Grand Budapest Hotel is the logical next step. The film (production design, Adam Stockhausen; cinematography, Robert Yeoman) is a pastel-colored dream of Between the Wars elegance, of some imagined central European alpine world, with its wedding-cake architecture, its funiculars and funny names, its Sochi-worthy ski-and-sled chase.
And in the center of all this, from his station at the splendid resort, is Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), a dedicated concierge with a rigorous stride and a tendency to sleep with his more aged, and more moneyed, guests. One of these, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), expires, which leads to the reading of a will and a battle over her estate, and a valuable Renaissance painting she apparently has bequeathed to her lover, the hotelier.
The plotlines, and the people plotting them, are manifold, but principally Anderson's movie spins around the comic capers of Gustave and his new, faux-mustachioed lobby boy, Zero (a wonderful Tony Revolori), as they're pursued by a raging heir, played by Adrien Brody, and his skulking henchman (Willem Dafoe, bringing the sinister Rat he voiced in Fantastic Mr. Fox to malevolent life).
Inspired by the work of the Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, and by the films of Ernst Lubitsch, especially To Be or Not to Be and Ninotchka (isn't that Melvyn Douglas' mustache Fiennes is wearing?), The Grand Budapest Hotel is by far the most headlong comedic affair in Anderson's canon. It's practically Marx Brothers-ian at moments. And Fiennes - who knew he was capable of such wicked, witty timing?!
But there is, as in all of Anderson's films, an undercurrent of melancholy, and also, here, more than a bit of palpable menace. Trains are stopped by grim soldiers, demanding papers, threatening arrest. The black-uniformed "ZigZag" officers are clearly modeled on the SS. Conflict, in the once serene republic of Zubrowka, looms.
As this story-within-a-story-within-a-story marches to its conclusion, Abraham's Moustafa reflects on the hero of his tale, Gustave:
"To be frank," he ventures, "I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it - but, I will say: He certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!"
And sustaining illusion with marvelous grace is, in a nutshell, exactly what Anderson is all about.
The Grand Budapest Hotel **** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Wes Anderson. With Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, and others. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, violence, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz FiveEndText