Wes Anderson has his share of groupies and his somewhat smaller share of skeptics who find him a tad precious. As someone who leans toward the precious view, but is open to his grace notes, I found The Grand Budapest Hotel mostly delightful.
It's a madcap comedy, but with hints of tragedy lurking outside the usual Anderson dollhouse frames. The central character is Gustave H., played by Ralph Fiennes. He's the concierge of a kitschy, opulent, high-class European hotel between World Wars I and II.
But it takes a while to get to Gustave. We journey to the past via layers of narration. First a girl pays tribute to a statue of a dead author, then Anderson cuts to the author, played by Tom Wilkinson, who tells the story of his middle-aged self — that's Jude Law — on a trip to the faded hotel in the 1960s. And then Law's character takes over the narration and tells us how he met the hotel owner, Mr. Zero Moustafa — played by F. Murray Abraham — and how Moustafa told him of his time in the '30s as a lobby boy and assistant to Gustave H.
Why a story within a story within a story within a story? Anderson's inspiration comes from Stefan Zweig, a writer who fled Vienna before Hitler's ascent and then labored to evoke the world he left behind for fear it would pass from memory. Anderson's Chinese-boxes storytelling takes the onus off him to be "realistic." In memory, everything is stylized, gloriously fake and yet brimming with real longing.
Composition and color isn't incidental — it's the whole deal. The mountainside Grand Budapest is a miniature — a dollhouse — reached by model train. Inside, it expands. It's immense. The choreography of staff and guests is busy and militaristic in its precision. The colors are intense: pink walls, crimson carpets, staff waistcoats of electric magenta. Anderson can make you dream of a design for living on a higher, more beautiful plane.
Young Mustafa, played by Tony Revolori, meets Gustave in the course of mid-morning rounds and is, at first, an unpleasant surprise: The teen has been hired without Gustave's knowledge by an underling.
Anderson's visuals are so witty they transcend camp, but his dialogue isn't quite at that level. That's why it's good he has Ralph Fiennes, a stage pro who moves with aplomb and speaks his lines so trippingly they sound like they're funnier than they are.
The boy (Zero), alas, is another of Anderson's deadpan mouth breathers, obeying Gustave's orders on cue. He could have more personality. Sundry guest stars lend their wattage to The Grand Budapest Hotel: Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel. Anderson is a pied piper who picks up actors as he goes along — and it would be nice if they had, you know, roles. But the pop-up cameos are a source of pleasure; they give the film a family vibe.
Oh yes, there's a plot. Gustave is given to bedding his elderly guests, and one — Tilda Swinton, withered by makeup — has a premonition of her death. When news comes she has, indeed, died, Gustave grabs Zero and boards a train for her mansion. Soon he's blamed for her murder and hunted by police led by Edward Norton and a grim-faced assassin played by Willem Dafoe.
The last half of The Grand Budapest Hotel has a chase through the Alps that's staged and shot like a pipe dream of flight — it's thrilling. And Anderson's campy dialogue doesn't hurt too much. Somehow it makes Europe's encroaching fascism seem even creepier. The final scenes are handled with delicacy but deliver an emotional wallop. It's a movie that makes you sad to re-enter the real world, in which people are less exuberant, proportions less harmonious and colors far less vivid.