Written & Directed by Wes Anderson
If you’ve waited this long to see the new Wes Anderson film you’ve probably already heard it emphatically described this way: it’s a Wes Anderson film. For the better part of the last two decades Wes Anderson has been keeping auteurism alive in America. His films are colorful, vivacious, wry, quick witted and regularly brilliant. Perhaps of greater importance than the films themselves is their director. Through his features and commercial work Wes Anderson has established his creative vision as a unique brand. It’s a look that can be co-opted (his influence is all over the tide of quirky indie comedies that have been flooding the market for the last ten years) or purchased (Anderson has directed smart, self-aware ads for Prada, American Express and Stella Artois). The last five years of Anderson’s career have seen a shift away from the character driven story telling that dominated early films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. More recent films have placed a greater emphasis on grand experimentation and nostalgia. That shift was perhaps no more apparent than in the bizarre Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s feature length foray into animation. The temporary abandonment of live action seemed to make sense at the time: Anderson’s films have always possessed a stagey-ness that lent them a sense of the otherworldly. Their action seems to take place in a world free from convention. In some ways that makes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, a return to form: it situates itself firmly in a historical context (albeit a fictional one) in which a vain concierge (Ralph Fiennes) finds both himself and his hotel in the midst of a whodunit as well as an imminent continental conflict. Yet in more profound ways, the film is a continuation of the trajectory established by Mr. Fox: a wild adventure with serious undertones that can’t quite figure out how to evoke real feeling in its audience.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is more coherent than its predecessor, Moonrise Kingdom, a film that was surprisingly aloof despite Anderson’s much deserved reputation as a storyteller. Intent upon translating a trans-national wartime caper into a screwball comedy, the film charges breathlessly along at a clip that left me grateful for its relatively short run time. The Grand Budapest Hotel is easily Anderson’s most kinetic film since Fantastic Mr. Fox and seeks to prove so at every turn. Each chaotic moment crests and crashes upon the one before it. Its enough to make you pine for the rich ennui of The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic. Anderson is surprisingly successful at this speed and in this genre. His greatest strength as a director has always been his measured comedic timing. While so many comedies front load their best jokes and then pummel you with the story the writers forgot to tell, Anderson’s gift for delivery means the laughs are evenly dispersed throughout.
While most of the film’s humor is in its staging and action, a handful of the actors in the film’s bloated ensemble get choice roles. Monsieur Gustave H. (Fiennes) is Anderson’s archetypal male, his most recent in a long series of Royal Tenenbaums: men with lofty ambitions (particularly in the field of being adored) who are constantly thwarted by the smallness of their spirit and the pettiness of their environment. Through a dramatic trial that they themselves bring on, they inevitably discover goodness lurking behind their shell of selfishness. As with almost all of Anderson’s films since Rushmore, Budapest can be viewed through a variety of lenses, though the rate at which these entry points into the story are mercilessly eliminated tends to actively refocus the story on Gustave and his protégé, lobby boy and foreign refugee, Zero Mustafa (promising newcomer Tony Revolori).
Following in the footsteps of Moonrise Kingdom, a playful story of the mundane that Anderson felt compelled to jazz up with clumsily deployed Biblical elements, Budapest is also a coming of age story, a genre at which he excels. These two most recent films feature young protagonists situated on the verge of adulthood, charged with erogenous energy while also carrying an innocence that keeps them from fully contextualizing the gravity of their actions. So too is Anderson a director that flirts with thematic seriousness beneath the sweet veneer of his films. Sadly, Budapest is more interested in grotesque imagery than it is in tough conversations. Given the circumstances (the fading façade of the Golden Age, the Hitchcockian “wrong man,” the thinly disguised World War II analogue), the emphasis on imagery is perhaps appropriate but nevertheless disappointing from a director who has proved time and again that he knows how to push his characters toward confession without literally holding a gun to their head.
It’s always been possible to miss the subtleties within Anderson’s writing when faced with the procession of his films’ memorable cinematic moments. The pathos has always been on site but the themes have become easier to miss in the rush of cutaways, tableaus and tight editing. The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception. Its story within a story within a story (the conceit is ridiculous even for Anderson) moves at a staggering pace and features such an incredible onslaught of acting talent that when the cheats in the story do occur (for instance: why do we see Gustave approving of Agatha when he is in fact still in prison with Harvey Keitel as a bunk mate?) the audience has little time to ponder them before Gustave and Zero are suddenly chasing Willem Dafoe’s assassin for hire down a treacherous alpine slope after he’s just offed Mathieu Amalric’s Serge X in a mountaintop monastery. This naturally occurs just before Bill Murray’s Monsieur Ivan (part of a secret society of concierges) rescues the pair but after Jeff Goldblum’s Deput Vilmos Kovacs declares that part of the inheritance being divvied up by a collection of ruthless relatives (led by Adrien Brody) is apparently missing. The star power that’s been part and parcel of Anderson’s films since the beginning has inflated to immense, distracting proportions. To read a synopsis of the film’s plot is to see its action in 12 point font and its characters in 72. This method worked for the deceptively simple Royal Tenenbaums where character and setting motivated the action that balanced them both. Yet in a film that emphasizes its adventure elements so obstinately and lets up its breakneck pace only in moments of extra-narrative intimacy (the scenes between F. Murray Abraham’s aging Zero and Jude Law’s young Author are among the best the film has to offer), the largeness of the characters, many of whom (perhaps intentionally) never fully transcend the actors who play them, tends to get in the way. The Grand Budapest Hotel regularly feels like watching a giant trying to navigate an obstacle course or a dog attempting to ride a skateboard. The novelty drives our giddy reaction but ultimately fails to capture the whole of our attention.
Anderson’s film is like an elaborate and efficient orchestra playing a variation on a once complex theme that has since lost all its meaning and vitality through an endless series of repetitions. The players perform with the discipline of paid professionals who, having exhausted their enthusiasm for the material, tirelessly await the conclusion of their performance. To an average audience, the music may not sound much different than if it were played by another group with freshness and inspiration, but to the trained ear the melodies are tired and flat. On the off chance there’s ever another renaissance of economy in American filmmaking, Wes Anderson will undoubtedly be lovingly remembered as one of the finer specimens of the previous generation of filmmaking; the Jean Renoir of the opulent early millennium. The Grand Budapest Hotel will likely mark the peak of his extravagance, the point at which the scales of his talents began to tip into the realm of self-indulgence. Anderson has only really gotten away with these types of films for so long because they have been, at the very least, charming and captivating, which Budapest undeniably is. However, prior successes have also been touching and stoic as well. With each new release those finer moments fade like the glory of the film’s titular lodging. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson has designed his most elaborate, technically excellent work yet and drawn a sympathetic portrait of vanity and extravagance. It reads like a love letter to a time that Anderson himself knows never existed. Yet, as the film’s director, he seems incapable of detaching himself from his own prized creation. A measure of critical distance may have left some of the lovingly crafted detail on the cutting room floor but it also would have left room for the melancholy spaces in which all of Wes Anderson’s greatest cinematic achievements dwell.