Fans of Wes Anderson will undoubtedly check into "The Grand Budapest Hotel" as soon as possible, but the filmmaker's latest attempt at confectionary cinema has enough appeal (both in story and star power) to pull in a fresh audience looking for a murder mystery with some flair and fun to it. Set in the fictional European providence of Zubrowka, Anderson's latest feature focuses on the inhabitants of a once-grand (not actually in Budapest) hotel, and the shocking crime that set the scene for its inevitable decline.
Anderson's film flows between three timeframes – present day, 1968 and 1932, using period-appropriate aspect ratios for each (the boxy nature of the 1.37:1 ratio, used for the earliest parts of the story, is at first a distraction to modern minds and then a pleasure) – and is the story of a now-weathered author (present day) recounting a favorite story (that he heard in 1968) from a man who lived it in 1932. That story is centered on the early adventures of the Grand Budapest’s cherished concierge M. Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) and young lobby boy Zero (the storyteller of 1968), and it occasionally switches back and ties into the action of the film's other time periods, rounding out a richly imagined mythology.
M. Gustave H is a bit of a dandy – immaculately dressed, fully attuned to his job, generously perfumed and intimately involved with many of the hotel's more age-advanced patrons – and he is beloved by both staff and guests. He's just good at, well, everything, which makes the false accusations of murder that are eventually hurled at him so painful (the false imprisonment that follows proves to be more painful to Gustave himself).
Like Gustave, young Zero (a charming Tony Revolori) is deeply dedicated to and enamored of his job, and he approaches his duties with relish. Zero also (quite quickly and wisely) realizes that following the whims of M. Gustave H is the way to reach the top of the Grand Budapest heap, and he soon becomes his most trusted confidant. Zero's loyalty will ultimately prove to be Gustave's saving grace, and it effectively serves as the emotional center of the film.
Gustave, for all his charms, has run afoul of a family who are not too pleased with his long-standing romance with matriarch Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), whose mysterious death prompts a reading of the will that doesn't please them. Madame D.'s only son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), and an evil lackey Jopling (Willem Dafoe, nearly vampiric in his nefariousness) set out to frame Gustave for the murder, so that the rest of the children can capitalize on their mother's treasures, especially a priceless painting that she pointedly bequeathed to Gustave. What follows is a murder mystery that takes Zero and Gustave around Zubrowka and back, all to clear his name and discover what's really going on.
Despite the film's title, much of the action of "The Grand Budapest Hotel" happens beyond the resort's walls, with plenty of stops at Madame D's home, the prison Gustave is confined to, a train or three, and the snowy climes of Zubrowka. It's one of the film's major missteps, however, to take the action away from the finely crafted hotel, the kind of place that seems ripe for its own explorations and adventures. Although Anderson has built out the world of Zubrowka, it is the world of the Grand Budapest that is most intriguing, and every scene that takes place at the hotel is exciting and engaging to watch. Anderson doesn't do repeats, but here's hoping he decides that he has more tales to tell from his gorgeous hotel in the very near future.
Anderson has always been skilled at building his own worlds, but the wholesale imagining of both the hotel in particular and Zubrowka at large place "The Grand Budapest Hotel" in the familiar company of the filmmaker’s other recent works, "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox," which similarly crafted their own literal topographies. Anderson has abandoned a bit of his whimsical nature for the later portions of the film, but the film's first half hour presents one of his most darling settings yet, until, of course, it all crumbles into murder, mayhem and bad renovations.
Plenty of Anderson's usual suspects pepper the film's supporting cast, from Bill Murray to Jason Schwartzman to Owen Wilson to Edward Norton, but most of the action rests on the shoulders of a pair of Anderson newbies – Fiennes and Revolori – who perfectly inhabit the auteur's whimsical world while also building their own very charming relationship within its contexts and constructs. Saoirse Ronan is also good in her somewhat limited role, and Jude Law and F. Murray Abraham are a solid pairing.
The time-spanning conceit of the film is well executed, and although it could have been used to delight audiences with more surprise elements (that the aged storyteller is, in fact, an older Zero is announced early on), it does add to the emotion of the story and its flow. Fiennes and Revolovi are a deeply amiable pair, but the bounds and bonds of loyalty remain a fertile land for Anderson and his films to explore. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is not his grandest work yet, but it is one worth an extended stay.