A PECULIAR blend of offbeat charm, oddball characters and unique visual style is what typically sets a Wes Anderson movie apart from the rest, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception. In line with previous offerings such as The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012), the director's eighth film comes equipped with original thinking, witty dialogue and production values that put most Hollywood blockbusters in the shade. It doesn't always work, but there's no denying the fun to be had in trying.
This time around, Anderson sets his sights on a bygone era in Europe between the wars and a way of life in a vanished world. There are several grand dames in the story and the eponymous hotel of the title - regal, elegant and faintly mysterious before a sharp descent into shabbiness - puts in a star turn too, but the glue that holds the entire enterprise together is Gustave H, a concierge who wears powerful cologne and starched shirts while running the hotel with a meticulous style rooted in old-school ways.
The hotel sits on a mountaintop in a fictional Germanic country and enjoyed its heyday in the 1930s, when it was a vacation spot of choice for the rich and titled. The film is constructed as a story-within-a-story and begins when a writer (Tom Wilkinson) tells of his visit to the hotel as a young man (Jude Law) in the 1960s, when it was already an enchanting old ruin, with threadbare carpets and sloppy service standards.
There, he encounters the grizzled owner Zero Moustafa (F Murray Abraham) who invites him to dinner and tells of the time he started as a wide-eyed lobby boy (the young Zero is played with impressive maturity by Tony Revolori) under the watchful eye of the mustachioed Gustave (a fabulous Ralph Fiennes).
Appearances are (almost) everything with Gustave who is possessed of a dry wit (laced with profanity) and - apart from his official duties - is given to servicing rich old ladies on the side (with the full knowledge of the hotel staff).
When one such customer (Tilda Swinton) suffers an untimely demise and bequeaths him a priceless painting, Gustave is wrongly jailed for her murder and targeted for elimination by a hitman (Willem Dafoe) in the employ of her evil son (Adrien Brody). A full-blown caper follows.
By now, viewers familiar with Andersen's comic sensibilities will be relishing the non-stop flow of madcap incidents and episodes, along with supporting performances and cameos by the filmmaker's unofficial star-filled repertory company (including Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Jason Swartzman, Owen Wilson and Edward Norton). Saoirse Ronan gets into the spirit of things and holds her own as Agatha, a pastry-shop girl with a good sense of occasion.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a good-natured romp in one sense, setting a comic tone along the lines of an old Hollywood farce, but there is also an element of tragedy in the proceedings. The movie was inspired in part by the writings of Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), an Austrianborn aesthete and intellectual who was profoundly affected by the rise of Nazism and authoritarianism during his lifetime.
Still, the film offers far too little by way of real substance to make an impact on that score. Instead, it mostly serves as a vehicle for Fiennes' memorably over-thetop performance and writer-director Andersen's wonderfully unconventional approach to cinema entertainment.
"He sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace," says Moustafa of his old friend Gustave, and the same could be said of the film's creator. The Grand Budapest Hotel is an enchanting trifle - but a trifle nevertheless.