Back then, Mr. Mustapha was a mere lobby boy, known as “Zero” (Tony Revolori), the pupil and protégé of celebrated concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). Gustave is a prim and fussy perfectionist—copiously perfumed yet notably filthy of tongue—whose devotion to service includes, well, servicing the many rich, elderly ladies among the hotel’s clientele. (“She was 84,” Zero exclaims in disbelief when Gustave reveals one of his paramours. “I’ve had older,” Gustave replies breezily.)
When one among Gustave’s coterie of intimate acquaintances, Madame M. (Tilda Swinton, unrecognizable under wizening prosthetics), passes away, Gustave is summoned to her wake, where he discovers that she has bequeathed to him an invaluable painting entitled Boy with Apple. Madame M.’s covetous progeny take this news poorly, in particular her malevolent son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), who tasks his homicidally inclined bodyguard (Willem Dafoe) with reacquiring the portrait. Plots and counter-plots ensue, involving theft and murder, imprisonment and flight, secret societies and missing wills.
Anderson’s customary affectations are all very much in evidence: the marzipan palette; the finicky, meticulous compositions; the sentimental attachment to bygone relics, here ranging from macaroons and rotary phones to funicular trams and striped prison outfits. Also scattered ornamentally throughout the film are small roles for a great many members of Anderson’s extended troupe, including (in addition to those already cited) Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Jason Schwartzman. Mathieu Amalric and Saoirse Ronan also make appearances, as an ill-fated domestic and as Zero’s oddly birthmarked love interest, respectively. Though few of these performers are offered very much to do, they complete Anderson’s set dressing with great aplomb.
As the fastidious yet feisty Gustave, Fiennes is a delight. Whether he is engineering the perfect stay for his hotel guests or making new friends in prison, there is an imperviousness to his solicitude. For all his delicate mannerisms—he addresses strangers as “chaps” and “darlings”—Gustave possesses an underlying strength and dignity that suggest a farcical variation on Don Cheadle’s performance as Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda. (Fiennes obtained the role of Gustave after Johnny Depp dropped out, leaving unanswered for now the question of whether an Anderson-Depp pairing would prove sublime or intolerable.) As the young Zero, Revolori is primarily the straight man, and he fulfills this obligation expertly, another in a series of young performers (along with Schwartzman in Rushmore and Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward in Moonrise Kingdom) ably directed by Anderson. And as our narrator, F. Murray Abraham reminds again, as he did last year in Inside Llewyn Davis, of the Hollywood vagaries that allowed someone of his extraordinary talent to all but vanish from the big screen for three decades.