It's also, with a plot that splinters off in a handful of maze-like directions, possibly the director's heaviest plot ever — the point where it threatens to grow too dense for its own good during a hazy middle section. But the screenplay regains its footing through ample physical comedy, starting with a prison escape sequence that suggests "The Grand Illusion" directed by Ernst Lubitsch. In the action-comedy phase of the story that follows, Anderson gives us a riotous sled chase, a clandestine gondola maneuver, and allies to Gustave's cost that include both stone-faced monks as well as a superhero-like legion of supportive hotel concierges known as "The Society of Crossed Keys" — providing yet another excuse for a few more staples of Anderson's previous work to squeeze in cameos. The arrival of endless self-referential ingredients may test the patience of anyone unable to operate on Anderson's zany wavelength, but it's hard not to fall for his hypnotic, unapologetically silly riffs on romanticism and adventure.
Despite the relentless charm factor, Anderson's whimsical expressivity is not devoid of greater significance. A comedic allegory for wartime relationships, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" explores the tragedies of socioeconomic collapse in the wake of Communist uprising and fascist threats without giving the conflicts a name. Gustave's conundrum embodies a dramatic tension involving the collapse of old world affluence and the regretful mindset that emerges from facing new generations: his connection to Zero (initially harboring racist implications until the older man decides to take more of a paternal role) has plenty of symbolic ramifications worth sorting through. Gustave's peculiar nature is itself a wry caricature of European ideals in the first quarter of the twentieth century, his flamboyance and sexual promiscuity at odds with his ostensibly conservative views on etiquette. A profound and ridiculous figure whose suave demeanor equally calls up memories of Oscar Wilde and Cary Grant, Gustave embodies Anderson's restless approach.
For every moment that the capriciousness threatens to derail the narrative, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is sustained by an allegiance to that same outlandish imagination. The movie celebrates Anderson's solipsistic artistry as a necessary factor in his success. Describing Gustave years later, the older Zero says "his world rushed by before he entered it, but he sustained the illusion." But it's clear who he's really talking about. Likewise, when Law's writer figure sets the scene in an opening description of the hotel, he describes it as "picturesque," the ideal descriptor for any Anderson set. Then he adds, "I expect some of you will know it." And we do, yet it still manages to surprise us each time out.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? All the signs point to a limited commercial hit: Fox Searchlight opens "The Grand Budapest Hotel" this Friday in the wake of strong notices and accolades since its premiere at the Berlin film festival. The early-in-the-year release date might make it a tough proposition to remain in the conversation during awards season, but the movie should benefit from a less competitive marketplace and sustain a robust presence at the specialty box office office presence ahead of summer movie season.