- - Thursday, March 13, 2014

Wes Anderson’s movies are always filled with fanciful things, and his latest, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is no exception.

The main action takes place in a fictional country, Zubrowka, just over a decade after the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of which it was a part. The unnamed storyteller (played by Jude Law as the younger version and Tom Wilkinson as the older) suffers from a fictional illness — “scribe’s fever,” described as a “form of neurasthenia.”

Most noticeably, almost nobody has the Germanic accent you might expect. The actors don’t choose one set of Anglo accents to adopt. Instead, everyone uses his or her native voice: Edward Norton, the Zubrowka officer, and Jeff Goldblum, a lawyer with a Hungarian name, are clearly identifiable by their American accents, while Saoirse Ronan speaks with her native Irish lilt.

Yet, for all the unreality, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” contains more truth than most films you’ll see this year. I don’t mean simply the sort of emotional truth we expect good fiction to provide; Mr. Anderson’s fairytale farce brings back a world that once existed and more than hints at the terrible forces that destroyed it.

There are three timelines here, a frame within a frame, and the director has cleverly used different aspect ratios to give a different feel to each. It’s a shame that the 1985 set piece is so short: Tom Wilkinson is hilariously gruff as The Author who has published the story of the Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s amusing that a writer-director as imaginative as Mr. Anderson has the man who might be thought of as his on-screen representative dismiss the role of imagination in art-making. “Once the public knows you’re a writer, they bring the characters and events to you,” Mr. Wilkinson says. And so he takes us back to 1968, when he suffered from a case of nerves and went to rest at the house of the title.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is not so grand as it once was. Why it’s still open remains a mystery — as does its rich owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham, always a pleasant surprise on screen), who is making his annual visit to the hotel, where he stays in the tiniest room. Moustafa recognizes the writer, whose work he admires, and offers to tell Jude Law his tale over dinner that night. And so he takes us back to 1932, the hotel’s heyday.

Then, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) was just the lobby boy, in awe of his mentor, head concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). “Concierge” doesn’t really capture Gustave’s work, though: He wines and dines many of the elderly, lonely, and (of course) rich women who visit. One (a pitch-perfect Tilda Swinton) dies soon after and leaves Gustave a priceless painting, which he promptly steals. To be fair, the woman’s son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) was unlikely to let him have it. In fact, he frames Gustave for the murder and has him sent to a typically dismal Eastern European prison.

The story becomes more outrageous. A preposterous escape succeeds, spearheaded by prisoner Ludwig (a determinedly vulgar American Harvey Keitel), and Gustave, aided by the loyal Zero and his new fiancee (Miss Ronan), is on the run and determined to clear his name. A slapstick chase in the snowy mountains of Dmitri’s henchman (Willem Dafoe) after he’s just killed the witness to the crime is particularly fun: “What do we do if we catch him?” “I don’t know, he’s a homicidal psychopath.”

But for all the fancy and fun, this is one of Mr. Anderson’s most serious and cerebral films. The first credit at the film’s end states it was “inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig.” He’s all but forgotten these days, but in the 1920s and ‘30s, he was as famous and lauded as the film’s Author. It’s Mr. Fiennes’ character, though, who’s made to look a little like the Austrian novelist, and, with his tour-de-force performance, this is Mr. Fiennes’ film. His character is an epic creation, a fastidious gigolo with seemingly few scruples who earnestly quotes poetry at life’s important moments and would defend to the death his immigrant protege, Zero, who finds life more difficult as the country’s powers-that-be push toward war. Their insignia may read “ZZ” rather than “SS,” but there’s no mistaking the history behind this fantasy. Or the certain catastrophe that awaits Mr. Anderson’s comic creations, who live in a world not so unlike our own of fourscore years ago.

★½ 

TITLE: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

CREDITS: Written and directed by Wes Anderson from a story by Mr. Anderson and Hugo Guinness

RATING: R for language, some sexual content and violence

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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