BERLIN - At no point in its fleet runtime does anyone break into an actual dance routine -- and honestly, someone probably should -- yet the average Busby Berkeley musical barely contains as much regimented choreography as Wes Anderson's dizzy, chintzy and improbably touching "The Grand Budapest Hotel." Cast members don't walk; they glide, skip and occasionally pop into the frame as if released by a lever. The camera doesn't pan or track; it whirls and soars. The mise-en-scene is pulled into shape via an intricate operation of cogs and pulleys -- some of them visible. All moving parts -- cars, trains, bobsleds, even actors -- run like artisan-built clockwork toys.
What I'm saying, I suppose, is that this is Anderson's busiest, even fussiest, film -- in a filmography that has never wanted for clutter or garnish. Hell, it might be more animated even than "Fantastic Mr. Fox." This should be bad news, at least for this viewer: Anderson's wondrously worked worlds can feel as airless and affected as they are artful, and the potential in this project for twee rigidity is off the scale.
Why, then, am I simultaneously so tickled and moved by "The Grand Budapest Hotel?" It's a film so choux-pastry-light as to feature a scene where two characters are literally immersed in pastry boxes, so OCD in its detailing that the cast credits list an actor represented only in oil-painting form. But in relocating his fixed sensibility to an obsolete European neverwhere, and making the eponymous institution as storied and tragic a subject as any of its residents, Anderson has hit on the ideal narrative context for his restless romanticism and production design fetish: Beneath its jaunty crime-caper surface lies a story implicitly about beauty and ornamentation, and the ways in which we've let it go.
The hotel in question is located not in Budapest, but in the fictional republic of Zubrowka -- "once the seat of an Empire," an introductory subtitle notes ruefully. At least half its name correct: it's a grand enterprise, introduced in diorama form as a kind of industrially frosted pink wedding cake atop spiky, forbidding grey hills, ensuring you wouldn't stay there to savor anything but the hotel itself. That's its 1932 incarnation, at least, where it's a high-society hub lorded over by Ralph Fiennes' unflappable, fearsomely groomed manager Monsieur Gustave.
That's not where we begin, however, in a film that nests its narrators like Russian dolls. Speaking to the camera in 1985, an unnamed writer (Tom Wilkinson) relates his memory of a visit to the hotel in 1968; his younger self (a fine Jude Law) finds it a decaying palace of broken dreams, its former glory concealed beneath orange melamine panelling and rows of vending machines. (Genius production designer Adam Stockhausen delights as much in grotty modernist kitsch as he does in pre-war splendor.) There, he encounters elderly guest and former hotel proprietor Zero (F. Murray Abraham), who takes the storytelling baton from this point.
And a cluttered, chaotically tall tale it is, with Gustave as its deliciously effete hero. Fiennes plays him as a tragicomic fop of literary inclination and delivery, commanding his staff with a manicured iron fist and spouting other people's poetry in the ready manner of those who need it most. He takes great pride in servicing his elderly female guests, even as he alludes to his own ambiguous sexuality; when he takes the younger Zero (Tony Revolori), then a wide-eyed lobby boy, under his wing, his interest seems equal parts paternal and chastely amorous.
The death of one of Gustave's grizzled conquests, 84-year-old moneybags Madame D (Tilda Swinton, extravagantly liver-spotted), kicks the story into gear: After she unexpectedly bequeaths the hotelier a priceless painting, her enraged descendants conspire to have him framed for her murder.
Thus ensues a human pinball game of chases, escapes and shaggy-dog searches -- not dissimilar, then, to the hijinks of the director's last, lesser feature "Moonrise Kingdom," but with the overhanging gloom of the already-glimpsed future (and the imminent threat of an Andersonland equivalent of World War II) lending a certain pathos to the playfulness. Madame D's death itself foreshadows the demise of the hotel's ruling class; Zero's madcap efforts to rescue his beloved boss serve to restore an elegant order that won't last even his lifetime. For such a fun, frisky divertissement, there's an awful lot of mortality on this film's mind.
Many saw this bittersweet theme of temporary grace in "Moonrise Kingdom," a near-equally ornate puppy-love romance that I didn't feel nearly as deeply as "The Grand Budapest Hotel" -- perhaps because the hyper-stylized fairytale Continentalism here somehow feels more authentically, eccentrically Andersonian than the other film's nostagia-washed New England. More crucially, for the first time since "The Royal Tenenbaums," an Anderson film has a soulful, suggestive lead performance at its center, rather than dinky human extensions of the art direction.
Flaunting his rarely-indulged capacity for snappish comedy and more familiar spaniel-eyed gravitas, Fiennes is quite magnificent here, revelling in a difficult man's absurdities without stooping to condescension or cartoonishness. A typically hand-picked ensemble swans gamely around him -- special shout-outs to Law, Saoirse Ronan's wistful baker and Willem Dafoe's grunting, cat-tossing hitman, though the likes of Lea Seydoux and Bill Murray could hardly be given less to do.
Not that you can blame them for simply seeking an opportunity to show up on set, so exhaustive and enticing is the world-building here, with Stockhausen's obsessive dollhouse designs lovingly cradled by Robert Yeoman's lithe, pastel-hued cinematography. Alexandre Desplat's merry score -- its tones from thumping organ to waltzing balalaika -- would be needlessly fey in just about any other context, including some of Anderson's own work. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" thrives on such prettiness: it's a proudly slight elegy for life's delicacies. In a film where dessert forms an actual plot point, it's apt that Anderson has found a way to have his cake and eat it too.