A writer (Tom Wilkinson and his younger self, played by Jude Law) is reminiscing about his encounter, over 20 years ago, with the enigmatic Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the elusive owner of the dilapidated Grand Budapest Hotel, crumbling relic of a bygone era and formerly a renowned spa nested in the tiny Eastern European, mountainous Republic of Zubrowka. Much to his surprise, the proverbially secretive old man had begun telling him his incredible story, that of a young refugee with no family (Tony Revolori) who got hired as a lobby boy and became the disciple of the almighty Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the universally praised concierge of the Grand Budapest then at the peak of its glory between the two World Wars.
How could you possibly summarize the plot of movies as multi-faceted as Wes Anderson's - this one in particular? What details, what narrative thread would you cling to, what references would you pick to draw a comparison? Would you rely on the lead provided by the mention "inspired by the work of Stefan Zweig" in the credits? Although I'm not extremely familiar with Zweig's books I was indeed able to feel some of his biting irony here and there. Or would you rather call upon the ghost of the great Ernst Lubitsch, who almost single-handedly invented for Hollywood a singular blend of decadent yet literate Mitteleuropa elegance and American glamour?
For anyone who has ever watched films such as Trouble in Paradise or To be or not to be, it cannot be denied that Gustave H. shares a lot with Lubitsch's leading men, especially in his acrobat's ability to (smartly) land on his feet regardless of the plot's many somersaults and his suave flirtatious ways with the ladies. Moreover, like the latter movie The Grand Budapest Hotel holds on to the belief that the maintenance of certain moral, intellectual as well as esthetic standards are mandatory requirements in the fight against evil in any form.
Just as would happen in any self-repecting screwball comedy by Lubitsch, the story (which revolves loosely around the suspicious death of the extremely wealthy Madame D. - Tilda Swinton- , one of Gustave H.'s "old blondes" a.k.a. lady protectors, whose legacy to him infuriates the natural heirs) is but a mere pretense to set both characters and events in (rather stochastic) motion. Right from the start it is made clear that this classical "whodunit" subplot is completely dispensable when compared to the irresistible flow of the eccentric fiction washing over an incredibly colorful cast - and mamma mia! what a cast this is: Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan and Harvey Keitel are all doing a splendid job. Gustave and Zero, like other more or less likely biological or surrogate father-son pairs in previous Anderson's films, have no other solution than to stick together for better or for worse.
As usual with Anderson, the main setting (first shown to us through tongue-in-cheek shots that make him a jolly sibling to The shining's distressing Overlook Hotel!) is an enclosed space, a dollhouse through which characters come and go, and to which they always come back - as if unfailingly bound to it - even though sometimes it is in imagination only. Like the island in Moonrise Kingdom, Rushmore's school, the Belafonte in The life aquatic, The royal Tenenbaums' family house, The Darjeeling Limited's namesake train, the hotel is both a cross-section through an ant farm, bursting at the seams with busy workers and convoluted tunnels inducing the many twists and turns of the plot, and a character in its own right, complete with moods and feelings.
Bottomline: your cinephilic taste buds will enjoy taking small bites of this delicious Grand Budapest Hotel, just like you would with one of Mendl's legendary Courtisanes au Chocolat in their cute pink box - their only flaw is in never lasting long enough.