Leave it to Wes Anderson to make a film about World War II without mentioning Germany. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, a wundercabinet set in the fictitious Eastern European republic of Zubrowka circa 1932, Anderson captures the collapse of a kingdom and the rise of a reich without so much as an SS on a lapel. Here, it's a ZZ — short for the Zig Zag Division — a logo that looks so adorable engraved on martini shakers and ping-pong tables that you could almost, but not quite, forget that its adherents are going to destroy the world.
We've never seen a threat like the Zig Zags in Anderson's films, which tend to be fastidiously wallpapered wombs where men-children struggle with their delayed coming of age. Initially, Grand Budapest, too, appears to be one of his twee fantasies, opening with an animated funicular huffing up a mountain backdrop to arrive at the titular hotel. But in a blink, the image jumps from 1932 to 1968, and the building devolves from pink to drab. We realize that, for once, Anderson will let his airless snow globe be shaken and dropped, and in this case crudely glued back together by Communism, coyly referred to as the time of "common property."
The Grand Budapest Hotel has the scope of a century. At the start, a modern punk visits the memorial of a great unnamed novelist. Quickly, we jump to 1985 and that author, played by Tom Wilkinson, reminiscing back two decades further still, to when he was young enough to be played by Jude Law. When Law sits down for supper with the mysterious Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the film once more leaps into the past to arrive at our main narrative: the story of how young Moustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori) ascended from being the Grand Budapest's Junior Lobby Boy-in-training under supreme concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) to owning the whole thing outright.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Written and directed by Wes Anderson. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson and Owen Wilson.
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If you're counting, Anderson is wrestling with four layers of fiction. It's fitting: His characters have never sounded like real people, and now he has an excuse for paragraph-length monologues delivered without a blink. At these, Fiennes is brilliant. He understands that Anderson has a hard time distinguishing people from props, and he plays Gustave as a bit of both, a self-created legend who strides around the hotel like the Fred Astaire of housekeeping.
Gustave is a fabulous contradiction, a sincere hustler who's both fastidious and profane. With regard to his lovers — all dowagers getting their groove back at the Grand Budapest — he's clearly shagging them for the cash. Still, he feeds their needs while proclaiming that their sagging flesh is "more flavorful." Even here, in the past of the past of the past of the present, he's a relic, an honorable man who so values protocol that he greets death squads with "How do you do?"
The thrust of the plot is Gustave's efforts to prove he didn't kill one of his heiresses (Tilda Swinton), a murder charge levied by her three tittering daughters and money-hungry son Adrien Brody, who, in his heavy black overcoat and crooked nose, stalks the film like Poe's raven. But the emotional drama is Gustave's struggle to keep order while chaos — personal and geopolitical — encroaches on his manicured fiefdom.
Anderson was inspired by the works of Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig, and Grand Budapest is his most mature film — and his most visually witty, too. It's playful without being self-congratulatory, and somehow lush without being cloying.