Directed by Wes Anderson. Starring Ralph Fiennes. Rated 14A.
Wes Anderson’s movies—even earlier, cheaper efforts like Rushmore and Bottle Rocket—have always privileged the visual over the verbal. And yet they have also been intensely literary; it’s just that his choice of literature is the sort that children love.
Still, The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s most mature work, full of melancholic nostalgia, sudden jolts of violence, and intimations of sex and decay. It also has a convoluted story-within-a-story structure and a deeply European pedigree. (The screenplay is a first-time collaboration between Anderson and artist turned writer Hugo Guinness, but the end credits say it was “inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig”, the tragic Austrian whose Russian-doll-like stories have already been made into many movies.)
Like its central character—the cheerful concierge Gustave H., who handles day-to-day things at a pastry-pink mountain resort in a fictional eastern European country—Budapest maintains a youthful innocence. Whether shtupping rich old ladies (including Tilda Swinton in heavy makeup) or running from proto-Nazis, Gustave (an especially brilliant Ralph Fiennes, channelling Laurence Olivier on absinthe) switches easily from English to French or German, douses himself with L’Air de Panache, and can draw upon hundreds of equally perfumed poems no one really wants to hear.
These affectations are part of an essential skill set he’s passing on to new lobby boy Zero Moustafa, played by a (literally) pencil-mustached Tony Revolori in the main story, set in the mid 1930s, and in old age by F. Murray Abraham. The latter’s Communist-era character is, in turn, passing on the story to a writer played by Jude Law—himself a stand-in for a later novelist played by Tom Wilkinson, who reverse-launches the shaggy tale in 1985.
Got all that? No need. Anderson and production designer Adam Stockhausen (who also designed Moonrise Kingdom and 12 Years a Slave), aided by playful composer Alexandre Desplat (redeeming himself for The Monuments Men’s anodyne score), treat the delightfully varied material like a giant pop-up book, with familiar faces a big part of the popping. (Yes, Bill Murray appears, along with Jeff Goldblum and many others, but why ruin the surprise?) In a way, this beautiful Hotel is a child’s snow-globe idea of adult manners 82 years ago, when la belle époque itself was already just a memory. But a genuine feeling of acute loss lingers, along with the whiff of extra panache.