Can you make a successful comedy entirely out of eccentric, marginally related episodes? “The Grand Budapest Hotel” proves it’s possible, if you’re Wes Anderson. As he wrote and directed it, you won’t be surprised to learn that the edifice of the title is neither grand nor in Budapest nor even exactly a hotel when the film begins: A lobby sign reads “dental clinic.”
Anderson, who created the story with Hugo Guinness, credits Stefan Zweig as his inspiration. Zweig, an Austrian Jew who committed suicide in 1942, wrote many novels and stories about Europe between the two World Wars. But Anderson’s real inspiration seems to be the labyrinthine tales of Jorge Luis Borges.
Consider the opening setup. A young woman of the present walks into a park in the mythical Eastern European country of Zubrowka, holding a novel titled “The Great Budapest Hotel.” She pins a token – perhaps a key? – to the statue of its dead author. We cut to a scene of that author (Tom Wilkinson) in the 1980s, speaking about events that led to his book.
Suddenly we’re in the 1960s, as a younger version of the author (Jude Law) gathers material for it. He meets Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), courtly owner of the rundown Grand Budapest Hotel. As they sit in its cavernous dining room, the owner tells a long story about his youth as a lobby boy in the 1930s, training under the fastidious eye of concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).
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We might just as easily have started in the ’30s. We didn’t need all the buildup, except to establish a feeling of melancholy and lost grandeur the movie could have achieved later. But Anderson doesn’t introduce any scene out of need; he acts entirely from whimsy, and the film has less emotional resonance than his other work.
We ping-pong among a hideous dowager (Tilda Swinton), her suspicious lawyer (Jeff Goldblum), her secretive French butler (Mathieu Amalric), her creepy son (Adrien Brody), the even creepier hit man who works for him (William Dafoe), prison inmates (led by Harvey Keitel) and a crack team of concierges who can bail each other out of any dilemmas (Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Fisher Stevens, etc.).
Seeing Anderson stalwart Owen Wilson pop up behind a hotel desk, you may think, “He wouldn’t give his old friend a part with just five lines.” But he would. The only constants are Tony Revolori as young Zero (whom Anderson makes a bland non-character) and Fiennes, who has a grand time as the urbane, poetry-spouting, bisexual egotist who steals a priceless painting and goes on the run.
Is there a reason Zero’s betrothed, a baker at Mendl’s confectionery (Saoirse Ronan), has a birthmark in the shape of Mexico on her right cheek? Is there a reason the stolen painting should be replaced on its wall by a repulsive expressionist portrait of two women in flagrante delicto? No and no, except to make us shake our heads.
Anderson leavens the lunacy with a few acts of sudden and extreme violence or avert-your-face sex, which seem as extravagant as the rest of his notions. Perhaps they’re in there to change the flavor of the humor, the way Mendl might put a bitter coffee bean in a chocolate torte to keep it from cloying us.
Production designer Adam Stockhausen, who worked on Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” in 2012, outdoes himself: The hotel in its prime looks like a painting on a box of marzipan 90 years ago, and each scene has a wealth of opulent period details. For a movie that’s all about appearances and almost never about essences, he’s Anderson’s ideal collaborator.