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(USA TODAY) DirectorWes Andersonis the uncontested master of films that artfully blend whimsy and emotion.

Sometimes his efforts advance promisingly and then veer into twee territory (The Royal Tenenbaums); other movies are just too weird to appeal to mass audiences (The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou). More recently, they hit the loveliest notes of inventive wonder and storybook imagery (Moonrise Kingdom).

TheGrand Budapest Hotel(* * * ½ out of four; rated R; opening Friday in select cities) falls happily into the last category. It's a mature, intricately layered visual delight.

Anderson's eighth film is centered on an opulent, pastel-pink palatial hotel in a spa town in the fictional Eastern European republic ofZubrowkain the early 1930s. The tale begins in 1985, told by an unidentified author (Tom Wilkinson) in flashbacks. The author's younger self (Jude Law) goes to the hotel in the late 1960s and becomes spellbound by a complicated story spun over dinner by the hotel's reclusive proprietor, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Moustafa inherited the once-magnificent establishment from Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the former concierge. The young Moustafa (Tony Revolori) was a shy lobby boy, as well as Gustave's protégé and confidant, back in the 1930s.

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Fiennes is brilliant as the haughty, refined and sexually ambiguous Gustave. A fascinating scoundrel who's also fiercely loyal and ridiculously witty, Gustave wears a purple tuxedo and is perhaps Anderson's most memorable character sinceRushmore's Max Fischer.

The meticulous, lucid and ambitious caper covers the director's signature theme of family dysfunction, as seen through his distinctive perspective and within the rigorous framing of an illustrated storybook style and Old-World production design.

The author begins by recalling the memories of Moustafa as seen through his own youthful remembrances. It becomes increasingly clear that this is not only a crime thriller, but a multilayered story about abiding friendship.

The character that has our complete attention is the courtly Gustave. With a penchant for elderly rich widows (preferably "insecure, vain and superficial"), his bon vivant ways are leavened with sleaze. He cannot go anywhere without dousing himself in a cologne called L'Air de Panache. His manners, however, are impeccable. He communicates in flowing baroque prose, a one-man crusade against imprecise discourse.

In his dalliances with dowagers, Gustave is particularly partial to Madame Desgoffe, aka Madame D (Tilda Swinton), an octogenarian whose desires are quenched forever when she suddenly, mysteriously dies. She bequeaths a priceless painting to Gustave, inciting the ire of greedy Dmitri (Adrien Brody), the villainous scion of her batty aristocratic family. The Renaissance-era painting is at the center of this farcical saga, which occasionally resembles the Pink Panther movies with its chases, narrow escapes and disguises. The arty thriller features a cast of such Anderson regulars asJason Schwartzman,Owen Wilson,Bill Murrayand Ed Norton.

Though arch and occasionally mannered,Grand Budapest Hotelis droll, enchanting and thoughtful. Anderson creates his own detailed, quirky fantasy world, which is an undeniable treat to visit. It's an antiquated universe that thoroughly captivates. But, as the dark cloud of fascism looms over this stunning 1930s landscape, a sense of melancholy seeps into the narrative. Thirty years later, the hotel is grimly ravaged, having been taken over by a Communist regime.

There's more toThe Grand Budapest Hotelthan its dazzling candy-colored exterior. A sense of political inevitability and a yearning for a more innocent time infuses it.

A haunting and humane tale peopled with unforgettable characters, it's the work of a highly original filmmaker at the top of his game.

By Claudia Puig, USA TODAY

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