From the opening frames of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (which opened the Berlinale Thursday and hits screens stateside via Fox Searchlight on March 7) you know you are in Wes Anderson Land. It’s lush and gorgeous and colorful and twee and utterly obviously fake. And it’s hilarious, with a sprawling cast of mustachioed comedians–led by the remarkable Ralph Fiennes as the concierge, M. Gustave– crammed into every nook and cranny. The movie is infectiously fun, and looks as if everyone–from the actors and the writer-director, cinematographer Robert Yeoman, production designer Adam Stockhausen, composer Alexandre Desplat and costume designer Milena Canonero on down, are having a fabulous time.
Inspired by the literary world of Vienna’s Stefan Zweig, Anderson takes us back in time to a story within a story. The author of a new book entitled “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (Tom Wilkinson) launches the narrative in 1985, and swiftly returns to 1968, when his younger self (Jude Law) meets Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), owner of the broken-down Grand Budapest Hotel in the Republic of Zubrowka, “once the seat of an empire,” now sparsely populated by lonely people poking along empty corridors. He agrees to tell the curious young writer about how he came to obtain this odd establishment. At which point we dive back in time again to 1932, when the hotel was at its peak of elegance–with war looming. (Each period gets its appropriate aspect ratio.)
Shot at the film studio in Babelsberg, Germany, Anderson indulges his love of Old Europe and goes to town with wintry mountain landscapes (that look painted), funiculars and old railway trains (an itch he also scratched in “The Darjeeling Limited”) and delightfully bizarre interior designs. The first hour goes swiftly, as Gustave romances an aging rich woman (Tilda Swinton), trains young Zero (Tony Revolori) as a lobby boy, and through many twists and turns, steals a valuable painting, runs from the police, enters and escapes from prison (where half-naked and tattooed Harvey Keitel is looking robust as ever) and makes Zero his heir.
While the cast is delicious–Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe make amusing cardboard villains, Edward Norton pops up as a policeman, Bill Murray is a mustachioed fellow hotelier, and Jeff Goldblum has a nice turn as an estate lawyer–no one takes much screen time, leaving us to hang with the loquacious M. Gustave and his faithful Zero.
Fiennes does his absolute best, but unfortunately Gustave eventually wears out his welcome. That’s because as satisfying as the movie is in its first 50 minutes, this swiftly spinning top loses momentum in its second half, despite a few satisfying slapstick scenes and madcap chases, and slowly winds down to a halt.
Anderson seems to be reveling in the past, as he is wont to do, and enjoying the myriad details of creating his version of it. His alter-ego Gustave is starring in his own fantasy world. But as Moustafa points out, “his world had vanished long before he entered it. But he sure sustained the illusion for a little while.” Anderson’s illusion is visually sublime–but the narrative he’s constructed is wafer thin.