April 2 2014 12:00 AM

Ralph Fiennes leads all-star cast in quirky, comedic ‘Grand Budapest’


Over the last 18 years, writer/director Wes Anderson has refined a whimsical cinematic style that has the lushness of a Merchant Ivory weepie and the whirligig wackiness of a “Peewee’s Playhouse” episode. His films are stocked with offbeat characters, frequently featuring big name actors rendered unrecognizable by deliberately horrible makeup, who converse in bouncy Seussian rhythms and crackling Wildean wit. Stop-motion animation, elegant set design and sideways tracking shots abound.

If Anderson’s 2012 film “Moonrise Kingdom” was the perfection of this style, then his latest outing, the ensemble melodramatic comedy “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is the Alpine peak of that perfection.

The Russian-nesting-doll-of-a-plot is an anecdote within a flashback within a memoir. An unnamed author, played by both Jude Law (in the past) and Tom Wilkinson (as his older self), writes about an unlikely friendship that developed between Zero Mustafah (newcomer Tony Revolori), an orphaned lobby boy at the titular hotel, and Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a tenderhearted but unscrupulous concierge who romances rich old ladies and lives off their munificent gratuities. An elder Mustafah, played by F. Murray Abraham, narrates the convoluted tale that incorporates a priceless painting, a slapstick prison escape and an epic toboggan chase scene down the side of a mountain.

Returning Anderson players include Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum and, of course, Bill Murray, who hasn’t sat out an Anderson flick since he starred in “Rushmore” in 1998.

While Anderson’s other films have had a distinctly American quality to them — including “The Darjeeling Limited,” which felt like a Western despite being shot almost entirely in India — “Budapest” is steeped in European sensibilities. It looks like a Flemish oil painting brought to life by a glocken spiel, while the pathos at its core is derived from mourning the demise of the Bohemian lavishness that flourished between the two great wars that ravaged that part of the world.

Unlike his contemporaries David O. Russel and Baz Luhrman whose films have come to be dominated, respectively, by ad-libbing caricatures and overwrought production design, Anderson has maintained a perfect equipoise of simplicity and flair. Each line of dialogue is a calculated element of character reveal, each frame an essential piece of a clockwork mechanism engineered to generate gut laughs, revulsion, sympathy, empathy and/or shock. Sometimes simultaneously.

Anderson is a polarizing director who has been condemned for his quirkiness and meandering storylines, yet praised for his humanism and visionary lan. “Budapest” won’t move either side, but it may earn him a few new fans. It fits neatly into his oeuvre, and serves as a model for the genre-defying capacity of narrative filmmaking.