Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" unfolds in no fewer than six narratives and perhaps as many points in time. Keep up: It begins with an earnest girl reading a novel whose Author (played at different ages by Tom Wilkinson and Jude Law) is recalling a dinner with Zero Moustafa, a former bellboy at the faded Grand Budapest Hotel. Even Zero -- played by both F. Murray Abraham and the appealing young newcomer Tony Revolori -- is telling another story, that of his beloved boss, a debauched but noble-hearted concierge named M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).
Anderson's movies -- from "The Royal Tenenbaums" to "Moonrise Kingdom" -- often seem nostalgic for a bygone era that the 44-year-old director is too young to remember, and here it's the 1930s, the end of empires and aristocracies. (The movie was inspired by Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, who killed himself in 1942.) Like most Anderson films, this one has a screwball plot, charm and an air of longing. But the tender friendship between the wide-eyed Zero and the worldly Gustave gives this movie an emotional core that isn't always an Anderson priority.
Set in Zubrowka, a pretend Eastern European nation on the brink of a pretend war (the invaders are mirror-image SS officers with "ZZ" armbands), "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is another visual triumph from Anderson. Half the pleasure is in its carefully arranged objects -- grand chandeliers, gleaming woodwork, once-modern signage -- but it also brims with terrific actors. Along with Fiennes, pitch-perfect as a tragicomic dandy, a partial cast list includes Tilda Swinton as Gustave's octogenarian lover ("I've had older," he says proudly), Adrien Brody as her vengeful son, Saoirse Ronan as Zero's loyal girlfriend and -- playing the members of a secret concierge fraternity -- Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Bob Balaban.
Anderson may be overemploying his stylistic quirks -- rapid-fire dialogue, whip-pan reaction shots -- but "The Grand Budapest Hotel" feels like one of his most definitive films. Of its many endearing figures, Gustave is surely closest to the director's heart. "Truth be told," Zero says of his friend, "I think his world was gone long before he entered it."
PLOT The adventures of a snooty concierge and his faithful bellboy in war-torn Eastern Europe.
RATED R (language, sexual content, brief gore)
CAST Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Jude Law, Saoirse Ronan
BOTTOM LINE Writer-director Wes Anderson ("Moonrise Kingdom") delivers another stylish charmer, this time grounded in the tender story of an unlikely but undying friendship.
FOUR FLICKS ACTUALLY SET IN BUDAPEST
Budapest, the home of goulash and the Gabor sisters, pops up in the title of Wes Anderson's latest movie, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," even though its Eastern European setting is never specified as the Hungarian metropolis. Here are four movies actually set in Budapest.
LADIES IN LOVE (1936) -- Call it "How to Marry a Millionaire" with a Hungarian accent as working girls Constance Bennett, Janet Gaynor and Loretta Young (none of whom speak in a Hungarian accent) rent a lavish Budapest apartment to impress their dates.
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940) -- In this Ernst Lubitsch charmer, bickering Budapest co-workers James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are unaware that they're romantic pen pals. It was remade as the Judy Garland musical "In the Good Old Summertime" (1949) and the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan rom-com "You've Got Mail" (1998).
THE MUSIC BOX (1989) -- The action shifts between Chicago and Budapest in this tale of a Hungarian immigrant (Armin Mueller-Stahl) whose attorney daughter (Oscar nominee Jessica Lange) must defend him when he's accused of Nazi war crimes.
VAN HELSING (2004) -- Hugh Jackman is the titular hero who's hired to rid Transylvania of its resident bloodsucker, Dracula. Along the way, he finds time to attend a masquerade in Budapest.
-- Daniel Bubbeo