Rarely has a director’s aesthetic and thematic palette been as recognizable as Wes Anderson’s. From the moment one see’s the words “American Empirical Pictures” in the opening credits, or takes in the film’s first breathtaking, immaculately composed shot, one already has some inkling of what the movie has in store. Unfortunately, in the 18 years since the writer/director burst onto the independent film scene (with 1996’s Bottle Rocket) this distinctive style has also proven itself to be somewhat polarizing; with people either adoring Anderson’s vibe or disparaging it.
While the curators of the Criterion Collection would vehemently disagree with me I personally have found Anderson’s canon to be largely hit or miss. Essentially, for every Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums or The Fantastic Mr. Fox there is a Darjeeling Limited or Life Aquatic right around the corner. With his latest: The Grand Budapest Hotel, we have a film which doesn’t rate in the director’s upper echelon, but proves to be a wildly enjoyable romp nonetheless, fueled mainly by Ralph Fiennes stellar performance.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a complex story within a story, oscillating between three different time periods (the 1980’s, the 1960’s, and the 1930’s). Primarily the film focuses on its 1930’s section, recounting the adventures of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a charismatic, womanizing concierge at The Grand Budapest Hotel. After the death of a wealthy widow, played by a completely unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, Gustave is bequeathed a priceless painting (drolly titled “Boy With Apple”) from her estate. This eventually sets off an mad-cap European adventure, with Gustave being wrongly framed for the widow’s murder. Additionally him and his lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori, doing the patented Anderson deadpan) draw the violent ire of the widow’s avaricious and borderline psychotic relatives, which further complicates matters.
Anderson’s eighth feature is undoubtedly his most ambitious. It is also his most action oriented, marked by numerous chases, escapes and shootouts. For the most part Anderson’s comedic, highly stylized aesthetic works well here, although one could hardly say that it breaks any new significant ground. All of the director’s well-known tropes are on display: hard zoom ins, parallel dolly shots, symmetrical imagery, and a plethora of inserts. The set design is also characteristically awe-inspiring, rivaling the nautical whimsy of The Life Aquatic or the New England fantasia of Moonrise Kingdom.
The supercharged hyperrealism found in the film’s trappings also extends to its massive cast, which is composed of one of largest collections of A-listers in recent memory. Aside from the names already listed a bevy of other Anderson regulars appear. From old favorites, such as Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, to newer editions like Edward Norton, Willem Defoe and Jeff Goldblum, The Grand Budapest Hotel often feels like a revolving door; you never know which famous mug is going to show up next.
In the end however this is part of the problem. Much like Moonrise Kingdom, which barely justified the star wattage emanating from its adult characters, The Grand Budapest Hotel does not create much in the way of magnetism or depth for its supporting cast. Only Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave manages to leave a strong, lasting impression on the viewer. Flamboyant, energetic and really quite funny, Fiennes completely owns the role of the heavily perfumed concierge, creating a literal dandy of a character.
Fiennes’ work essentially recalls Gene Hackman’s role as the wizened, rascally patriarch from The Royal Tenenbaums. In that film Hackman (in easily one of his greatest performances) was able to shake up the deadpan inertia that was slowly overwhelming Anderson’s work, while simultaneously providing the film with an emotional center. Fiennes’ performance, while equally commanding, cannot provide the film with this emotional or thematic foundation, which is due primarily to Anderson keeping his motivations and history largely ambiguous.
This quality makes much of the proceedings feel rather airy and superfluous. The revolving door of stars also exacerbates this impression, with The Grand Budapest Hotel occasionally feeling almost like a Grand Excuse for Anderson and his friends to get together for a European vacation – a la Oceans 12. Far more successful is the film’s establishment of time and place – specifically a Europe poised on the brink of WWII. Violent darkness seems to exist on the fringes of the film’s comedic opulence, a feeling which culminates in a masterfully edited scene of violence that is surprisingly shocking. Yet, Anderson doesn’t go far enough with this thematic idea, preferring to focus instead on the humorous hijinks of Gustave and company.
Despite this, The Grand Budapest Hotel should still satisfy Anderson aficionados and entertain the uninitiated. It’s not exactly a revelatory picture, yet the film contains slight albeit refreshing deviations from the director’s formula (such as the removal of the obligatory, slow motion closing shot). Still, these are minor changes. Intriguingly, one of the film’s most successful scenes is a simple nighttime spat between Gustave and Zero. Also, one of its most beautiful shots is free from Anderson’s normal artifice and elaborate set design, featuring a simple shot of Saoirse Ronan’s face filmed in soft focus. What these moments suggest are truths that Anderson seems to not have yet realized. Design will never truly compensate for characterization and less is indeed sometimes more.