With a lilt in his voice, Ralph Fiennes pushes a metal food cart past a row of prison cells and announces, "Mush, gents. Any takers?"
He may be wearing stripes instead of his royal purple uniform, but he is still Gustave H., concierge from the Grand Budapest Hotel in a European spa town in 1932.
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori.
Rating: R for language, some sexual content and violence.
In a caper that has more delicate distinctive working parts than a rare pocket watch, he is the stem that winds the story in the first great mainstream movie of 2014 for adults. (Everything is still awesome for "The Lego Movie," but that is a family film and this is rated R.)
"The Grand Budapest Hotel," from king of quirk director-writer Wes Anderson, opens in 1985 and spins the clock back to 1968 and then again to 1932, when most of the action takes place. It radiates from a luxurious hotel, before its slide into shabbiness, in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka.
Monsieur Gustave is the impeccably dressed concierge and perfumed gigolo who has a penchant for romancing some of the ladies who have been visiting the resort for years. They tend to be "rich, old, insecure, vain, blond and needy" and they gladly accept his attention and sexual favors.
When one of them, 84-year-old countess Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), is found dead at her palatial home, Gustave and a new hotel lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), head for her estate. Even death doesn't deter Gustave as he leans over the coffin and flatters, "You're looking so well, darling. ... You look better than you have in years."
But when it turns out the widow bequeathed a priceless object to Gustave, her bad-seed son (Adrien Brody) lets invective, fists and death threats fly. And the chase is on, with Gustave and Zero tipping enough dominos to march down one of the nearby mountains.
Fascism looms, not everyone makes it out alive, and the underlying tone is ultimately bittersweet. Still, the director's eighth feature is grander, merrier and more madcap than any of his previous movies.
He borrows some favorite storytelling techniques, such as dividing the film into chapters, and fills roles large and small with some of his regulars.
Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Owen Wilson, Ms. Swinton and Mr. Brody are joined by such Anderson newcomers as F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, Saoirse Ronan and Mathieu Amalric.
Part of the delight of the movie is watching familiar faces pop up in small roles as Gustave turns to a worldwide network of the like-minded for help.
The filmmaker, inspired by 1930s comedies and Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, built his elaborate sets inside a turn-of-the-last-century department store in a town near the intersection of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. He and his team also used miniatures for the outside of the hotel and some cable car and ski-chase sequences, too.
The look of the movie, thanks to the Adam Stockhausen ("12 Years a Slave") production design and costumes from three-time Oscar winner Milena Canonero, is charming and fanciful.
One scene, for instance, takes us inside a red-walled hotel elevator that pops against staffers' purple uniforms and jaunty caps and Ms. Swinton's mustard-colored dress, fur-trimmed burgundy coat and hat, slash of red lipstick and wavy tower of white hair. The hotel's exterior is a pink that fades with age, and multitiered bakery confections are tucked inside pink boxes tied with blue ribbon.
Mr. Anderson and cinematographer Robert Yeoman shot different time periods in different aspect ratios. That is why the image sometimes resembles a square (think a Polaroid picture) with bands of black on the left and right and, at other times, the traditional rectangle.
Adding to the lack of convention is the sprightly score by Alexandre Desplat, who used Central European instruments such as balalaikas (stringed instruments with three-sided bodies) and the cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer common to Eastern European gypsy music.
Paired synergistically with young Revolori, Mr. Fiennes manages to toss off terms of endearment, expletives or commands to the military police such as "Take your hands off my lobby boy!" as if making the lightest, airiest souffle -- and serving it on antique china before it falls.
Opens at AMC-Loews at the Waterfront, Manor in Squirrel Hill and Cinemark Robinson.
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.