THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (7 out of 10) – Written and directed by Wes Anderson; starring Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan and F. Murray Abraham; rated PG-13; in general release; running time: 100 minutes.
As with every new Wes Anderson movie, the release of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” has been accompanied by an expected, hipster-ish level of backlash and negativity, as well as an almost embarrassingly effusive brand of hyperbolic praise.
A goofy, visually stunning comedy/murder mystery that perhaps deserves none of those things, it’s been called Anderson’s “best movie in years” – an inaccurate description that conveniently forgets both “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009) and “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012) were both quite good, and that the two, well-reviewed would be arguable career highlights for many a filmmaker.
It’s also been criticized for its perceived coldness and lack of warmth, its sometimes meandering plot and a cartoonish grotesqueness that recalls material from one of the Coen brothers’ dark comedies more than it does most of Anderson’s earlier cinematic output.
Both of those things probably make “Grand Budapest Hotel” worse than it actually is. While more flawed than you’d probably like, it’s still typically Anderson in several respects, including its semi-literary qualities, quotable lines of dialogue, several laugh-out-loud funny gags, its gorgeous production design and at least one very strong performance.
That performance, not too surprisingly, comes courtesy of the always watchable Ralph Fiennes, who stars as M. Gustave, the manager and concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel. Set high in the mountains of a fictional, Eastern European country, the hotel often plays host to Europe’s wealthiest and most notable.
(While the film does skip around a bit, in terms of time period, the setting for this main section is between the two World Wars.)
Getting back to the charismatic, eager-to-please Gustave, he’s also a bit of a lothario who woos (and sometimes beds) his older clients, including the aging countess Madame D. (a nearly unrecognizable Tilda Swinton). But when she turns up dead, Gustave is the recipient of news of both the good and bad variety.
The countess’s lawyer, Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), reveals the contents of her will, which provides at least one treasure/reward to Gustave -- much to the dismay of her greedy, ruthless relatives, including Dmitri (Adrien Brody), who’s more than willing to pin the blame for her death on her much-younger lover, who doesn’t have a real alibi.
Despite his pleas of innocence, Gustave is imprisoned, though he plans his escape with help from Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the hotel’s new lobby boy who quickly becomes his best, most trusted friend and protégé.
As with several of Anderson’s cinematic stories (“The Royal Tenenbaums” comes to mind), there are layers within layers to this one. F. Murray Abraham plays an older but not necessarily wiser version of Zero, who recounts his tale to a curious author and guest at the now-shabbier hotel. (Jude Law plays the younger version of that character. Tom Wilkinson, in turn, plays his older counterpart, who narrates, at least initially.)
And, as in keeping with an Anderson tradition, there are some big names and recognizable faces in small roles. (Among the more notable ones: Swinton and Wilkinson, as well as Mathieu Amalric, Bob Balaban, Willem Dafoe Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson.)
However, these guest bits actually prove to be a distraction, and a couple of characters don’t really get all the screen time they deserve – especially Saoirse Ronan, in her role as Zero’s beloved Agatha, an innovative pastry chef who proves crucial to Gustave’s prison-escape plan.
Fiennes proves to be the film’s strongest asset, and his scenes with promising newcomer Revolori are the obvious highlights. And both Abraham and Wilkinson are good choices as narrators, as their dry, deliberate line delivery styles make you forget how much exposition is in the script.
Speaking of which, the script has some coarser material, including more strong profanity and language, than you’d expect from the usually classier Anderson. And he can’t help focusing on a semi-pornographic piece of art that’s there for a cheap laugh. He’s better than that.
Jeff Michael Vice can also be heard reviewing films, television programs, comics, books, music and other things as part of The Geek Show Podcast (www.thegeekshowpodcast.com), and can be seen reviewing films as part of Xfinity’s Big Movie Mouth-Off (www.facebook.com/BigMovieMouthOff).