The Grand Budapest Hotel is, in many senses, a one-up of The Darjeeling Limited--and not just because both titles share an exotic name. The closest Anderson has come to writing and directing a full-fledged adventure film (Moonrise Kingdom was also a telltale sign leading up to Grand Budapest) was this train-centric caper. But now, The Grand Budapest Hotel has officially become Anderson's great homage to the action and adventure genre. Taking place in the fictional setting of Zubrowka (think Wadiya in The Great Dictator), the story begins with a young girl visiting the grave of a famed author known to us only as "The Author." The film then commences its multilayered series of plot points set over several decades.
To begin, Anderson takes us briefly back to 1984, where the author (played in his older age by Tom Wilkinson) prefaces the story behind the Grand Budapest by informing us that once you're an established writer, getting inspiration is easy--people simply present their stories to you. Then, we're taken once more through the spans of time to 1968, the year The Author (now played in his younger age by Jude Law) met Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), formerly known as Zero during his days as a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest. In those days--and this is where we cut once more to the past (1932, to be exact)--the Grand Budapest was the height of sophistication. Many an old rich lady traveled there to receive the "special attention" of famed concierge M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, making something of a comeback).
Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, in a lovely impersonation of an old bag), his wealthiest and most loyal patron, warns him that she has a terrible feeling that this could be the last time he sees her. He assures her this is impossible and sends her on her not so merry way. It is at this point, that Zero's presence becomes known to M. Gustave, slightly affronted that no one had notified him of Zero's so-called hiring. A mere twenty-four hours later, her death is revealed to M. Gustave by Zero, who interrupts him and one of his clients to inform him of the news. The two rush to the family's palatial home after being briefly detained by Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton) near a barley field.
Madame D.'s comically devious family, particularly her son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody, wearing some real on point unisex costumes in this movie) are appalled to learn that M. Gustave has been bequeathed a valuable painting called "Boy With Apple." The family's lawyer, Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), notes that nothing in the Will has been finalized, prompting Zero and M. Gustave to steal the painting and flee the scene. The family's cold-blooded private detective, J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe, in one of his best roles in both a Wes Anderson film and any film), pursues them into the depths of the snow-capped mountains of Zubrowka. Again, Anderson highlights his gift for the action genre with an intense chase down the mountain as Zero and M. Gustave ride something of a makeshift sled to catch up to Jopling on his skis.
In the meantime, the Grand Budapest has become barracks for troops preparing for a war seemingly modeled after World War II (see: the swastika like thunderbolt flags). Zero's new girlfriend, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a pastry chef at the beloved Mendl's, sneaks into the hotel under the guise of doling out free pastries to gain access to the safe where Zero and M. Gustave have hidden "Boy With Apple." It is at the juncture in the third act that Anderson solidifies his ability as a director of elegant action by including a shootout. Although the denouement is filled with joyousness, it is also filled with the bittersweet.
The fundamental sadness of The Grand Budapest Hotel has echoes of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and is equally as tempered by elements of the hilariously absurd to buffer it above total tragedy. And, of course, the usual staples that make a Wes Anderson film great are all present: The nuanced expressions of each character at unexpected moments, the identification with the under dog of the story and a highly specific and unusual physical trait (in this case, Agatha's birthmark, shaped like Mexico). Concluding with the nameless girl we were introduced to at the beginning reading The Author's novel at his grave, the film adeptly swerves in and out of decades with ease. As Anderson's eighth feature as both writer and director, The Grand Budapest Hotel shows increasing skill in terms of lassoing an audience's affections.