With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson has made another Wes Anderson movie. This may sound tautological, but more than any other successful director working today, Anderson makes films that could not be made by anyone else. From the camera shots he favors to the dialogue he writes to the growing repertory company of well-known actors he employs, an Anderson project is always unmistakably his. This distinctiveness is both the filmmaker’s greatest strength and his biggest problem.
This time the story is about Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is located on a mountain in a fictional Eastern European country. Gustave divides his time between running the hotel and bedding the elderly female guests, one of whom writes him into her will, bequeathing him a priceless painting called Boy with Apple. When the heirs to the fortune frame Gustave for murder, his faithful lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) joins him on a series of adventures to clear his name.
All of this is told through an elaborate Russian nesting doll narrative mechanism that starts with a girl at a cemetery reading a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel. This leads to the author of the book (Tom Wilkinson) speaking directly to the camera about how he is going to tell us a story about writing the book, which in turn takes us to a meeting between the author as a young man (Jude Law) and the owner of the Budapest (F. Murray Abraham). Finally, as the owner tells his own story, we are introduced to Gustave and Zero, who happens to be the owner as a young man. Much like this introduction — and Anderson’s other movies — what follows manages both to charm and distance the audience simultaneously.
Also like his other movies, The Grand Budapest Hotel has plenty of action, including a prison break, a toboggan chase, a hotel shootout, and a number of cat-and-mouse excursions into labyrinthine buildings, but the story repeatedly takes a backseat to the style. Anderson is meticulous with his details and creates a candy-colored world within which to situate his whimsy. Unfortunately, the characters also end up more like props than people. This too seems a pattern, and as increasing numbers of famous actors flock to his productions, this effect has been compounded. When Bill Murray, who has been in Anderson’s last seven movies, shows up for a cameo, it is less in the service of this particular film than a nod to Anderson’s fans.
All of that said, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fast-paced and completely enjoyable confection. There is real joy in watching Fiennes and his cast-mates chew the scenery. But for those who have seen Anderson’s previous movies, it all feels a bit familiar.
This is Anderson’s eighth feature film. Particularly in the last three – which include The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom – there is a serious thematic undercurrent that might be described as a contest between rebellion and control. But Anderson seems either unwilling or unable to address this concern head on. Rather, his films refuse to let us empathize with his characters, even when they’re apparently in danger. It’s as if Anderson has something to say, but is more comfortable cutting to a non-sequitur joke than following through on something that might be distressing or assertive.
In The Grand Budapest Hotel, this is clear in two parallel scenes. Though the film is set in a fictional country, it is the eve of World War II and a fascist army comes to occupy the land. Twice in the film, Gustave and Zero are traveling on a train that is stopped by a gang of Gestapo-like thugs. Zero is an immigrant and Gustave, who may be gay, would definitely be viewed that way by these storm troopers. These scenes crackle briefly with a menace that has not marked Anderson’s other work and the possibilities are suddenly enticing. But instead, he pulls his punches both times, most egregiously in the first scene where he drops Edward Norton in as a Wes Anderson Character who awkwardly sucks the tension out of the moment.
Anderson might want to look at Woody Allen’s early career for some guidance. Allen started out as a director with a string of six very funny movies that were basically highly stylized sketch comedies. Then, his seventh movie was Annie Hall, followed by Interiors and Manhattan. Those were still movies that could not have been made by anyone other than Allen, yet at the same time, he found a way to expand the definition of a Woody Allen movie. Anderson is an equally talented and engaging artist. Here’s hoping that even as he experiences the most successful period of his career, he looks to push the boundaries of what it means to make a Wes Anderson movie.