In one of the many scenes of eye candy from Wes Anderson's enchanting "The Grand Budapest Hotel," an apprentice baker played by Saoirse Ronan carefully boxes up a colorful confection that looks so sinfully delicious, you want to reach into the screen and gobble it up.
That tempting dessert could serve as a metaphor for Anderson's stylized sense of moviemaking. In his eight feature-length films, he has consistently whipped up a Parisian patisserie of visual treats. While all have been attractively packaged, composed of choice ingredients and executed with a Michelin-starred craftsmanship, not all have been winners. His 2007 "The Darjeeling Limited" simply went off the rails, so to speak.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a bit different, a darker tweaking of a winning formula that has made Anderson into one of our most captivating storytellers. "Budapest" has more bite than some of his other productions, especially the breezy, innocent and much-loved "Moonrise Kingdom." It's by no means a downer, but there are shadows clinging to its storied, screwballesque narrative.
The film centers on the adventures of a dandy of a concierge (Ralph Fiennes) and his loyal lobby boy protege (Tony Revolori) as they get drawn into a thickening plot that leads to an art theft, a prison break, even a villain with fangs. Anderson wrote the screenplay and has said "Budapest," which is set mostly in a regal, striking hotel in the fictional region of Zubrowak, celebrates the works of Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, along with filmmaker Jacques Becker, among others.
No clue as to who they are? No worries. You're still in for a royal treat as Anderson puts his imprint on the frenetic goings-on. All the Anderson trademarks are rolled out: the surreal sets, the whimsical bursts of animation and the sumptuous production design.
The story shifts time sequence as it latches onto the importance of art and literature, juxtaposed against the cancer of fascism. Anderson once again adopts a storybook approach by dividing the narrative into chapters. We arrive near the story's end, as a writer-blocked character (Jude Law) makes the acquaintance of the former lobby boy Zero Moustafa (now played by F. Murray Abraham). Zero and the unnamed writer dine in the barren, beaten-down hotel, a place to which history has not been kind.
Zero relates an incredible tale, whisking us back to a happier time when the hotel was thriving, and concierge Gustav H. (Fiennes) was keeping older, lonely clientele cozy. When one of his dalliances, the 84-year-old Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis (Tilda Swinton) -- Madame D, for short -- winds up dead, upheaval begins, and soon Gustav becomes a murder suspect, while relatives, including Dmitri (Adrien Brody), along with his fanged henchman (Willem Dafoe), try to stop a second will from surfacing.
The lunacy leads to some shocking jolts of gory violence, along with the entrances and exits of intriguing secondary characters: Jeff Goldblum as an attorney with an affection for his cat; the young baker Agatha (Ronan), who is the love interest of Zero; and numerous small, well-placed cameos that include Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and other Anderson regulars.
Everyone is a delight, but it is Fiennes as the proud hotel showman who gives the storied performance. The Oscar-nominated Fiennes, so good as Charles Dickens in "The Invisible Woman," has sometimes been a difficult actor to warm up to on screen. But that emotional distance works in his favor as Gustav, a fascinating and erudite man who seems shallow, but eventually reveals pools of depth and compassion. Fiennes' refined performance keeps the film from becoming too sweet.
But it is Anderson's filmmaking that upstages nearly everyone and everything else, except the production design. With "The Grand Budapest Hotel," the beloved filmmaker has made one of his sharpest and tartest films yet: a sobering message movie that still knows how to tickle us with a goofy ski chase that is joyously and purely Wes Anderson through and through.
Rating: R (for language, some sexual content and violence)
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton
Director and screenwriter: Wes Anderson
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes