Writer-director Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a rueful delight. Anderson’s admirers will love it, while those who resist his quirky mix of deadpan precision and manic disorder must grant that it fits the story he tells here.
The roundabout way Anderson gets to his story (which he concocted with Hugo Guinness) tips us off that the story isn’t exactly the point. The movie opens in the present, in a run-down city in the fictitious eastern European Republic of Zubrowka. A young woman lays flowers before a monument to someone identified only as “Author.”
Next, it’s 1985, and we see that nameless author (Tom Wilkinson) as he dictates a memoir. His reminiscence takes us back further, to 1968. The writer as a young man (Jude Law) vacations at the legendary Grand Budapest Hotel overlooking Zubrowka’s capital city. The once luxurious hotel is on its last legs. The threadbare lobby has tacky vending machines slouched against the walls. The writer dines nearly alone in a cavernous dining room amid dozens of empty tables.
Among the few guests is an elderly man who turns out to be the mysterious millionaire Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the hotel’s owner. The concierge (Jason Schwartzman) tells the writer that Mr. Moustafa comes every year to the hotel, staying in a tiny, closet-size room on the top floor.
One day, Mr. Moustafa strikes up a conversation—an admirer of the writer’s work, he invites the younger man to join him for dinner. There he shares memories of the hotel back when he was a lowly but eager lobby boy (Tony Revolori). Thus, Anderson, jumping by stages into the past like a time traveler, finally arrives at the heart of his story.
It’s 1932, midway between the World Wars, and the Grand Budapest is gleaming and resplendent, bristling with bellboys, chambermaids, waiters, bakers, chefs and aristocratic guests— all of them presided over by the concierge, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes).
No ordinary concierge, Gustave is master of all he surveys. No detail of operations is too trivial for his attention, and everything runs to his exacting (and always correct) specifications. To Gustave, the guest is always right—and if any guest, male or female, requires sexual service … well, he’s a master of that, too.
One such guest is a wealthy, besotted octogenarian widow (Tilda Swinton, delightfully unrecognizable under pounds of aging makeup). When she dies unexpectedly, leaving Gustave a coveted painting, he is swept into a battle with her greedy relatives (led by a comically vicious Adrien Brody and a viciously comic Willem Dafoe); Gustave is even framed for the old lady’s murder. Swept along with him is the young Zero Moustafa, whom Gustave has taken under his wing, and who idolizes him accordingly.
Among The Grand Budapest Hotel’s many pleasures is Ralph Fiennes’ flair for comedy, which (except for his turn in the dark gangster comedy In Bruges) has hardly been hinted at before. He’s very funny here, his martinet elegance and crisp commands becoming whimpers of incomprehension as the universe turns against him. Fiennes’ performance is a small but highly polished comic gem. It prompts thoughts of what he might do with Shakespeare’s Malvolio or anything by Noël Coward.
The movie overflows with endearing comic invention (and amusing star cameos), countered by an undercurrent of melancholy nostalgia, both for a lost (and possibly imaginary) past elegance, and for the movies Hollywood and Europe once made about it. Gustave clings to ideas of pre-World War I grace and refinement, even as another war looms. Soldiers in unspecific (but distinctly Nazi-like) uniforms intrude in Gustave’s world, and each time they meet he is less equipped to deal with them, ultimately with tragic (but mercifully off-screen) consequences.
Tellingly, Anderson chooses never to return to the present, or even to 1985. He closes his movie in 1968, when the sad old hotel is at least still standing, and the glory days of Gustave H. are still alive in the wistful memories of the old Mr. Moustafa. We know the fate that awaits the Grand Budapest, but we can cling with Mr. Moustafa to what it once had. It’s a small but vital mercy in this funny, sad movie.