Check in to “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and you’ll find yourself mingling in the cavernous, rococo lobby with the ghosts of Billy Wilder, Ernest Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock and a host of other European émigré directors who came to define the wit, urbanity and heart of Hollywood pictures in the 1930s and ’40s.
Those cosmopolitan auteurs have a kindred spirit in Wes Anderson, the precise writer-director whose clockwork imagination, questing curiosity and storybook vision make him both a throwback and one of the most original filmmakers of his generation. Anderson’s pictures – from “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” to “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Moonrise Kingdom” – possess a dreamy density that make them seem old-fashioned and coolly contemporary at once.
A proudly quirky stylist and boho innovator, Anderson holds true to his previous fascination with eccentrics and outcasts in his new film, which takes its cues from those European sophisticates, as well as from the tragically fated Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, to construct the baroque, old-world spa of the title in the fictional alpine country of Zubrowka.
There, overseeing daily operations with the dash of a symphony conductor is Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, hilariously effete), the hotel’s legendary concierge – obsequious to the rich guests, stern with his loyal staff and all-knowing about the ins and outs of European aristocracy. Gustave takes a naïve young lobby boy, Zero Mustafa (wonderful newcomer Tony Revolori), under his wing, and, following the mysterious death of a wealthy dowager, who happened to also be Gustav’s mistress, the two set off on an antic caper aptly reminiscent of Belgian cartoonist Herge’s globe-hopping “Tintin” adventures.
The story is an intricate, clockwork thing that toggles between 1932, the Grand Budapest’s glory days, and 1968, its post-Communist decay. The plot spins around a stolen Renaissance painting and a clan of ruthless Zubrowkan nobles (with a prunish Tilda Swinton as the matriarch, Adrien Brody as the murderous son and Willem Dafoe as the family’s brass-knuckle hit man).
There are charmingly wacky detours that track Zero’s halting romance with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a baker’s assistant with a Mexico-shaped birthmark on her cheek, and a loony prison escape utilizing tiny chisels and saws baked into tiny Bavarian pastries. And everything transpires amid the rise of Fascism and the looming shadow of war.
Typical of Anderson, there’s a wealth of visual razzle-dazzle (odd bits of animation and miniature models) and a sprawling “Grand Hotel”-style cast that includes virtually everyone who’s appeared in his previous films (Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, F. Murray Abraham, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton and so on).
Yet for all the visual whimsy and flights of fancy, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” teems with sober undercurrents, melancholy human contours and dark intimations of a broader historical context. It is, perhaps, Anderson’s most ambitious and complex movie yet, and one that indeed proves that the filmmaker is able to think outside the precious jewel-box fantasies of his unique creations. – Dennis King
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum
(Language, some sexual content and violence)