All of Wes Anderson’s movies have, at their heart, at least one sweeping romance, usually contrived with at least one fatal kink that will conspire to keep the hearts apart. By contrast “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” arguably the director’s richest and most fully realized work to date, puts at its center a pair of colleagues who adore one another as brothers. Ralph Fiennes as Gustave, a prim and precise concierge whose strict eye keeps the hotel turning like watch gears, is approached one day by a hopeful protege, name of Zero (Tony Revolori), wanting nothing more than to be the lobby boy at the Grand Budapest. “Who wouldn’t?” the teenager explains. “It’s an institution.”
Gustave — loquacious, omnisexual, discreet and perpetually perfumed — sees in the lad a clay worth sculpting. Their friendship comes in handy when one of Gustave’s elderly paramours (a stunningly antiqued Tilda Swinton) suddenly falls dead, leaving behind a gallery of greedy and borderline feral relatives that Charles Addams couldn’t have drawn better and who as it turns out have likely framed Gustave for the madame’s murder.
Anderson implicitly promises, and delivers in heaping doses, a world set a few degrees to the side of our own. Filmed in Germany, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is set chiefly in Zubrowka, a make-believe nation, in 1932. We learn of Zero’s and Gustave’s adventures through a book read in present day, written by an author played in his younger years by Jude Law. The frames tuck into one another like Russian nesting dolls, with each time period set to a different aspect ratio, the very picture slimming as we delve further into the past.
Visually it amounts to a physical representation of the usual Anderson embellishments, which abound here. (To cite one example: The paper of record is the Trans-Alpine Yodel.) The soundtrack, composed by regular Anderson accomplice Alexandre Desplat and performed in a classical style by the Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra, is every bit as sublime as those facts would lead you to expect.
Anderson as well enlists many of his familiar players: Jeff Goldblum as a beleaguered attorney; Jason Schwartzman as a mediocre concierge; Edward Norton embodying the law as a military officer in a time of occupation; Adrien Brody as a petulant, fiendish goth bent on revenge; Owen Wilson and Bill Murray as hoteliers. Willem Dafoe plays a nearly mute werewolfesque psychopath; F. Murray Abraham cuts a gentle presence as the elder Zero, wizened but warm; and the inscrutable Saoirse Ronan (the erstwhile titular teenaged assassin of “Hanna”) arrives as a pastry artist and young Zero’s love interest, distinguished by the perfectly Mexico-shaped red-wine birthmark on her right cheek. The cast, it lacks not for talent.
Yet the ensemble doesn’t obscure Fiennes. He has never been funnier, allowing his “English Patient” Englishness to be combed and coiffed into an elevated vulgarian of the old school. The effect ranges to the absurd, to the slapstick, to the affecting and back again to plain ol’ charming. The film may in fact be dark enough to earn Fiennes some awards-season attention for this high comedic turn, but more likely his performance will be overlooked, per tradition in Anderson’s works. As fully realized as these characters are, they move with such precision through this dreamscape that they could be mistaken for clockwork cogs. It is just as easy to imagine them, however, as self-contained solar systems, in celestial motion as a miniature galaxy. The joys are that varied, that numerous, that grand.