Resort Card

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 99 minutes. M. Gustave, Agatha, and Zero (Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, and Tony Revolori). Photo: Bob Yeoman.

“I THINK HIS WORLD had long vanished by the time he entered it. But he managed the illusion with such grace,” one character says of another in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s latest Kool-Aid-colored diorama, set primarily in the fictional Eastern European country Zubrowska between the wars. The statement applies just as easily to the writer-director, an incorrigible nostalgist who relies on impeccable mise-en-scènes to function as emotional ballast.

That’s especially true, and egregiously so, in GBH, inspired by the fiction and memoirs of Austrian Stefan Zweig, one of most acclaimed authors of the interbellum period. Though Anderson’s eighth film is his first to be rooted in epoch-defining history, the events of the past are treated like a handful of prized bibelots—an impression amplified by the movie’s matryoshka-doll-like structure. Three different eras are nested inside one another: GBH opens in 1985 with Tom Wilkinson, identified in the credits simply as the Author, recalling his younger self—played by Jude Law—in 1968, the year he stayed at the once-glorious spa resort of the title to cure his “scribe’s fever.” It is while taking the waters that Law’s character meets the Grand Budapest’s owner, Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner, the solemn hotelier recounts his time as a lobby boy—his teenage incarnation, a refugee from an unnamed land, played by relative newcomer Tony Revolori—at the hotel in the 1930s, when he was under the tutelage of the effete head concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).

Doused in his signature cologne, L’Air de Panache, the gerontophilic Gustave (who swings both ways) spends many seasons bedding the octogenarian Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, buried under layers of latex and makeup, giving her an Edith Sitwell–meets–Trash Humpers look). Her death sets in motion a plot that strains—against perfectly framed interiors ablaze in orange, purple, pink, red, and lavender—to reach the supple yet sober screwball of Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), his comedy about the Nazi invasion of Poland. In due time, the Grand Budapest will transform ignominiously from a bastion of Old World elegance to a barracks for the jackbooted thugs of the “ZZ,” led by Madame D.’s son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Still popping his peepers the same way he did as Salvador Dalí (and to the same wearying effect) in Woody Allen’s own recent romp in the Continental past, Midnight in Paris, Brody is also called upon to respond to Fiennes’s hyperarticulate suavity with grating vulgarity: He refers to the polished hotel employee—who also occasionally interrupts his own smooth oration with a string of obscenities—as “that fucking faggot” or “you goddamn little fruit.”

Never funny, this coarseness instead typifies the tonal imbalance that impairs most of GBH, a project that, despite its lofty aims, shrinks everything to precious mini-size, much like the pastel-hued confections made by Zero’s baker’s-assistant sweetheart, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan, embellished with a port-wine stain on her face in the shape of Mexico). Anderson’s film looks good enough to eat; swallowing it is another matter.

The Grand Budapest Hotel opens in limited release on March 7.