Farcical pleasures are plentiful in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, set in an eastern European republic steeped in Marxism.
Groucho, not Karl.
Always a surprising filmmaker, Anderson springs a good one this time, releasing the inner fool Ralph Fiennes has suppressed over a career of glum or dangerous characters. Staying classy and funnier for it, Fiennes delights as Monsieur Gustave H., concierge of the Grand Budapest in fictional Zubrowka, nestled among jagged matte mountains in farthest eastern Europe.
It's 1932, a world war is brewing but this pink-frosted paradise is Gustave's domain. An iron fist for the staff jumping to his precise specifications, a velvet glove for guests, especially wealthy doyennes swooning to his touch. One paramour is Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, latex-aged beyond recognition), whose death leaves Gustave distraught — she was good in the sack, after all — and filthy rich as her sole heir. The family, led by Dimitri (Adrien Brody) and his sadistic henchman, Jopling (Willem Dafoe) won't stand for that.
Just that portion of Anderson's densely plotted confection — his first solo screenplay credit — provides Fiennes with ample inspiration. Everything he honed as a serious actor in timing and reaction is accelerated for screwball effect, still dashing but faintly dim, still anguished yet hysterically so. The role exaggerates the sophistication Fiennes conveyed for years, warming Anderson's art, where performances are often chilled for perfection.
At the same time, several of Fiennes' funniest moments occur when this dandy so fastidious in dress, fragrance and speech explodes with unbecoming vulgarities. Flowery speeches are punctuated by piqued profanities, suggesting a coarser background than Gustave would confess to employers.
At his side throughout these juggled crises is Zero Moustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori), a lobby boy in training whom Gustave takes under his wing. Zero becomes a confidante, an accomplice and eventually owner of the hotel. That's revealed at the outset, with F. Murray Abraham as the aged Zero telling his story to a writer (Jude Law). There's a romance in his saga with a baker (Saoirse Ronan), brushes with quasi-Nazis led by Edward Norton, and a secret society of concierges allowing what are essentially cameos (Bill Murray again) to be blown into star billing.
The sheer velocity of Gustave and Zero's adventure is a switch for Anderson, who doesn't linger as long or as often on his meticulously framed set designs. The Grand Budapest Hotel is as artistically manicured as any of his seven previous movies, and richer comically and emotionally than most.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.