Is it possible that everything Wes Anderson made prior to 2012’s “Moonrise Kingdom” was just a warm-up? That film was not only the second-biggest hit of the director’s wayward career (outgrossed only by “The Royal Tenenbaums” in 2001) but the one where his whimsies at last broke out of their brilliant shell and connected fully with the rest of us. Wes the precision puppetmaster, the sad clown of “Rushmore” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” had become a real boy, and the results seemed like a summing-up, a breakthrough, and a fresh start all rolled into one.
With “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Anderson is up to his old tricks but with a magnanimous new confidence that feels like a gift. Set in the fictional country of Zubrowka between the wars, it’s the story of a world-class concierge named Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), his adoring acolyte Zero (the 17-year-old Tony Revolori), and the hive of intrigues, subplots, and character actors that buzz around them in all directions as the international storm clouds gather.
The movie aches with the sort of Mitteleuropa world-weariness that comes from watching old movies like “The Shop Around the Corner” and reading the stories of Stefan Zweig — an admitted inspiration for “Grand Budapest Hotel.” But you also sense the sheer joy that Anderson and company (including co-writer Hugo Guinness) have taken in assembling their toy box, filling it with handcrafted effects and wind-up coincidences, and creating a unique, organic mixture of slapstick, bric-a-brac, and longing. It’s a lovely film, and if it doesn’t quite tap the emotional depths of “Moonrise Kingdom,” it offers many delights of its own.
Half the fun is getting to the main story, which is nested within several narratives, like a Russian doll. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is told by an aging writer (Tom Wilkinson) who recalls his younger self (Jude Law), who recalls staying at the title hotel in its shabby decline and listening to the reminiscences of the aging owner (F. Murray Abraham), who recalls his youth as Zero the Lobby Boy, when the Grand Budapest was at its peak and M. Gustave was its master.
I don’t think we’ve ever seen this Ralph Fiennes before: commanding, foppishly vain, and alive to the comedy of existence, including his own. (Then again, Fiennes has never been in a Wes Anderson movie before.) While his private sexuality is blurry, M. Gustave’s self-appointed duties extend to regularly rogering the wealthy dowagers who stay at the Budapest between grand tours and spa treatments. He’s a particular pet of Madame D. — the name sighs with the memory of Max Ophuls’s great 1953 melodrama, “The Earrings of Madame de...” — who is played, with gusto, by Tilda Swinton under a metric ton of old-age makeup.
There’s a death, a will, a purloined painting, a spurned heir played by Adrien Brody at the end of his tether, a hired assassin played by Willem Dafoe — but who isn’t in this thing? Among its many other influences, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a throwback, title and all, to those multi-star pig piles of the 1930s, movies like “Grand Hotel” that seemed to draft the services of entire studio stock companies. So we have Jeff Goldblum as a blustering attorney, Edward Norton as a heel-clicking officer, Saoirse Ronan as Zero’s pastry-chef ladylove (the Mexico-shaped birthmark on her cheek is one of the few touches of the old, tiresomely precious Anderson), Harvey Keitel as a jailbird, Lea Seydoux (“Blue Is the Warmest Color”) as Clotilde the maid, Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) as Serge the butler.
Dafoe’s nasty Jopling is a particular treat: He looks like the bastard son of Max Schreck, the “Nosferatu” star the actor portrayed in “Shadow of the Vampire” (2000). And when, late in the game, M. Gustave is forced to call upon the help of his fellow concierges, it’s as though every member of the Wes Anderson stock company were jostling for a cameo. If that’s what it takes to get a walrus mustache on Bill Murray, fine by me.
The prevailing tone is ripely comic — at times downright farcical — but with an undercurrent of panic. Anderson knows this culture of privilege and hierarchy is made of fragile stuff; when he cuts to the hotel in long shot, it’s an ornate paper cut-out. Zero, played with a charming seriousness of purpose by Revolori, comes to the Budapest with a back story of disaster. The film’s visual details are pure designer bliss, as always with Anderson, but the colors glow with a desperate beauty. Like the hotel itself, the movie seems perched on the edge of a cliff.
What does it add up to? What’s it all about, Wes? In a word: evanescence. Anderson has always been obsessed with perfect worlds gone by and with the titans who once bestrode them, and up to now they’ve always served as a metaphor for family. (No coincidence, the director’s a child of divorce.) Sometimes, as with “Tenenbaums” and “The Darjeeling Limited,” it’s not even a metaphor. “Moonrise Kingdom,” though, seemed to go back to the source of discontent — early adolescence, the Fall itself — and strike out afresh. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is the first Wes Anderson movie that doesn’t feel as if it’s nursing a private wound.
This, then, is a world we all lost: the genteel hangover of pre-World War I civilization that was snuffed out for good by World War II. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” depicts it with inventive sideways nostalgia, as though looking through glasses fashioned by Borges, Bunuel, or Nabokov. The swastikas on the invading army’s uniforms are double-Zs and the train they pull to a halt in the countryside could be carrying the cast of Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes.” The breeze is redolent of M. Gustav’s preferred scent, L’Air d’Panache. “His world,” says one of the narrators — does it matter which one? — “had vanished before he ever entered it.” Bless you, Wes Anderson, for restoring it to us from your imagination.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.