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Playfulness mingles with seriousness in ‘Budapest’

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Paul Schlase, left, Tony Revelori, Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes are shown in a scene from “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
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Tony Revolori plays lobby boy Zero, and Saoirse Ronan, right, is Agatha, his love interest in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

It’s a tough choice, but if I had to pick the most Wes Anderson moment in "The Grand Budapest Hotel," it would be the part when inmates escape from a prison using tiny sledgehammers and pickaxes that have been smuggled past the guards inside fancy frosted pastries. This may, come to think of it, be the most Wes Anderson thing ever, the very quintessence of his impish, ingenious and oddly practical imagination. So much care has been lavished on the conceit and its execution that you can only smile in admiration, even if you are also rolling your eyes a little.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel," Anderson’s eighth feature, will delight his fans, but even those inclined to grumble that it’s just more of the same patented whimsy might want to look again. As a sometime grumbler and longtime fan, I found myself not only charmed and touched but also moved to a new level of respect.

Rated: R
** **
Opens Friday

There is no doubt that Anderson possesses a distinctive sensibility and a consistent visual style, and that instead of striking out in new directions, he tends to embroider and elaborate on familiar themes and pictorial habits. You will see many of them here: static, densely packed, fussily composed frames; traveling shots in which the camera glides alongside the characters like a low-flying bird; action sequences that refuse the usual digital hocus-pocus in favor of the older, artisanal magic of stop-motion animation, matte paintings and rear projection.

You will also meet eccentric characters possessed by a kind of madcap melancholy, soulful and silly in equal measure. Some of them are played by actors you have seen elsewhere in the Anderson oeuvre, including Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton and of course (albeit briefly) Owen Wilson and Bill Murray.

So yes, a Wes Anderson movie, and hurrah for that. At the moment, there are very few U.S. filmmakers with the ability to articulate such an original, idiosyncratic vision and the means to express that vision so freely. There is a lot of integrity here and also a good deal of ambition. This is a movie concerned with — and influenced by — an especially rich and complicated slice of 20th-century European culture, and therefore a reckoning, characteristically playful but also fundamentally serious, with some very ugly history.

Throughout, we are in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, a mountainous land that cartographers of various eras might have plotted on the distant marches of successive empires — Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Soviet — or else erased altogether. The main story is rendered in narrow, boxy dimensions that evoke the films of its era, which is the 1930s. But there are two frames around this narrative, which is in effect a flashback within a flashback.

We start out in 1985, under a late-Communist gray sky in a town of cemeteries and statues. An aging writer (Tom Wilkinson) shoos away his grandson and recalls the time in 1968 when his younger self (Jude Law) stayed at the nearly empty, Iron Curtain-tacky Grand Budapest Hotel and became acquainted with its elegant and enigmatic proprietor, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham).

For his part, Moustafa reminisces about his first days at the hotel, where he was a mere lobby boy known as Zero (Tony Revolori) and the place was dominated by its charismatic concierge, M. Gustave. Portrayed by Ralph Fiennes with high-stepping liveliness and an evocative mustache, Gustave is both courtier and sovereign, a devoted servant to the guests and the capricious, mostly benevolent ruler of the staff. He corrects their slightest lapses of deportment and lectures them endlessly at mealtimes.

He is a lover of poetry and also of the elderly women who summon him to their suites, and maybe of a few men as well. Somehow, he is both an ascetic and a sensualist, highly disciplined and completely irresponsible. A thoroughly ridiculous man and at the same time "a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity."

That phrase occurs twice in the film and is the key to its intentions. In the real 1930s, places like Zubrowka were on the brink of inconceivable barbarism and unprecedented slaughter. A beautiful, fragile Central European civilization was all but demolished, surviving mainly as the ghostly object of nostalgic longing.

Anderson embraces this nostalgia — for a bygone modernity of railway compartments, telegrams and handmade luggage; of louche aristocrats, discreet bellhops and ruddy-faced workingmen; of painting and poetry and psychoanalysis — but he also tries to work through it, to capture some of the vitality and peculiarity of a vanished world.

One of his guides in this enterprise is Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), the prolific and celebrated Viennese writer whose physical appearance and mercurial energy Fiennes pointedly evokes. While not specifically based on Zweig’s work, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" conjures some of its defining traits: quickness, compression and a highly refined sense of the nuances that separate comedy from tragedy.

On the surface, there is a lot more comedy. The main plot spins around an elaborate, Tintin-esque caper involving a stolen painting and a clan of vengeful Zubrowkan nobles. (Swinton plays the matriarch, Adrien Brody her viperous son and Willem Dafoe the fearsome family hit man.) Zero, a refugee from another made-up geopolitical trouble spot, falls in love with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a baker’s assistant with a Mexico-shaped birthmark on her cheek. I will refrain from saying too much more about what happens, or about who shows up in what capacity.

It’s all a lot of fun, but it isn’t only fun. Or rather, it’s fun in the service of a subtle and sober argument. If Zweig is one of the film’s mid-20th-century, middle-European Jewish patron saints, another is Ernst Lubitsch, the filmmaker who left Berlin for Hollywood in 1922 and whose name connotes a peerlessly suave and humane comic touch. He functions in "The Grand Budapest Hotel" less as an influence — Anderson is a much sloppier storyteller — than as a point of reference.

On two memorable occasions, Lubitsch, without losing his sense of humor, confronted contemporary totalitarianism: in "Ninotchka" (1939), with Greta Garbo as a Soviet agent in Paris, and in "To Be or Not to Be" (1942), with Jack Benny as a Polish actor performing for the Nazis. These films fight tyranny with irony, frivolity and unshakable charm. It goes without saying that those are inadequate and perhaps inappropriate weapons against tanks and secret policemen. But even now, with full, bloody hindsight, we can appreciate the lesson that lightheartedness and laughter can oppose the heavy hand of political oppression.

That hand casts an oblique shadow over "The Grand Budapest Hotel." Hitler and Stalin don’t exist in this kingdom of make-believe, but sudden eruptions of violence and the offhand mention of tragic happenings point toward a profound darkness just outside the frame.

Anderson is no realist. This movie makes a marvelous mockery of history, turning its horrors into a series of graceful jokes and mischievous gestures. You can call this escapism if you like. You can also think of it as revenge.

Review by A.O. Scott, New York Times

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