Film review: Wes Anderson’s ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ is a wonderful puzzle

Tony Revolori (center) mans the front desk in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Mike D'Angelo

Four stars

The Grand Budapest Hotel Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody. Directed by Wes Anderson. Rated R. Opens Friday.

At first glance, Wes Anderson’s latest film seems dizzyingly complex. Shot in three separate aspect ratios, it incorporates four different time periods, nested like Russian dolls, though all of them concern the titular Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional country of Zubrowka. In the present day, a young woman looks at a statue of a famous writer and reads his story. In 1985, the writer (Tom Wilkinson) speaks directly to the camera, reminiscing about his experiences as a young man. (Both of these sections employ the same basic aspect ratio as a modern flat-screen TV.) The movie then flashes back to 1968, when the writer (now played by Jude Law) stayed at the Grand Budapest and dined with its fascinating owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham); Anderson shoots these scenes in anamorphic widescreen, providing a panoramic view of the hotel’s faded glory.

As Zero tells the writer about how he came to own the hotel, yet another flashback kicks in, shot in the squarish Academy ratio (shape of an old-style TV) and featuring Zero as a boy (played by newcomer Tony Revolori), working at the Grand Budapest in 1932 under concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). It’s the same hotel, but seen at the height of its opulence, and thus barely recognizable.

In truth, most of this scaffolding is unnecessary, though the outer tales contribute to a sense of nostalgia for a vanished era of impeccable courtesy (albeit one laced with profanity). Most of The Grand Budapest Hotel is devoted to the 1932 storyline, in which Gustave inherits a priceless painting from an elderly guest (Tilda Swinton) he’d been, uh, servicing, and gets framed for her murder by her ruthless son (Adrien Brody). It’s a remarkably plot-heavy film, by Anderson’s standards, moving at breakneck speed through a series of thoroughly delightful (but sometimes surprisingly brutal) escapades; most of the filmmaker’s repertory company—Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, etc.—turn up in small but amusing roles, and Fiennes has enormous fun with his cologne-obsessed dandy, who maintains a sense of decorum even in prison and gradually develops a deep bond with the young, intensely loyal Zero.

The wistful undercurrent that underlies Anderson’s best work is muted here, but Grand Budapest’s surface is so intensely pleasurable that its loss isn’t keenly felt. Despite a closing acknowledgement to Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, this could only be Wes Anderson’s work; his unique sensibility is a national treasure.

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