I confess: I am often ambivalent when it comes to Wes Anderson. I might enjoy his movies’ campish charm and relish in their stylish decoration, but there always comes a point at which I find myself rolling my eyes.
All his films recycle the same motifs, with their symmetrical compositions, eccentric characters, meticulous fonts and Bill Murray cameos. Wes Anderson has certainly created an original style, instantly recognizable and self-aware of its clichés. But at the same time, I find his distinct style to be too quirky to be taken all that seriously. Beneath the glam and the glitter, within the intoxicating Wes Anderson Universe, there is very little depth.
I understand this statement sounds like blasphemy to the ardent hipster fans of Anderson; nevertheless, there’s no need to worry. If you look past the lack of depth and focus on the artistry, a trip to the Wes Anderson Universe turns into a great pleasure. Anderson’s latest concoction, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is no different than any other of his films; outlandish in its plot, spectacular in its production design, ravishing in its visuals, it is superficial in many respects.
The most uniquely excessive part of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is that Anderson introduces the story in a flashback within a flashback; instead of jetting right into the 1930’s-set nostalgic yarn, we begin in the present as a girl reads a book—titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel”—in front of the grave of the Author. We then move to 1985, at which time the Author (Tom Wilkinson) recounts a 1968 sojourn in the fictional Central European Republic of Zubrowka at the Grand Budapest Hotel, then in tacky communist design. The young Author then encounters the hotel owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who narrates, over a fine dinner, the story of how he came to own the hotel as a young boy.
Why the surplus of back-story? For one, it adds an epic, time-spanning element to the story that is meant to incite nostalgia. Also, this zigzagging quality leads to an air of mystery and escapism. Anderson means for the story to feel like a madcap caper novel, meant to be read next to a fireplace on a rainy afternoon. Indeed, he tells his tale through the use of intricate chapter titles.
The crux of the story centers on the relationship between the hotel concierge M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), who waltzes around the lobby like a king, and his trusty protégé lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori), who draws his mustache with a pencil in imitation. M. Gustave—donning slicked-back hair, a finely-groomed moustache and a velvet bow tie—exudes charisma. M. Gustave enjoys the finer things in life; he is known for his excessive use of cologne and seduction of elderly women. Anderson has bred one of his most memorable eccentrics in M. Gustave, whose ostentatious inclinations veer on the ridiculous.
When one of M. Gustave’s paramours (Tilda Swinton, in convincing aging makeup) is murdered, M. Gustave is bequeathed Johannes Van Hoytl the Younger’s priceless painting titled “Boy With Apple” (both the artist and the painting are fictional). This infuriates the family, which sends its intimidating hit man (Willem Dafoe) after the duo. What transpires is an adventure that is in every way Wes Andersonian: a prison escape using digging tools sent inside fine pastries, a beauty mark in the shape of Mexico, an eerie chase through the empty corridors of a museum, an impromptu sledding chase down an Alpine slope, a secret brotherhood of hotel concierges. These expertly crafted, exceptionally funny and entirely enjoyable moments are worth the price of admission alone.
The hotel becomes a character of its own, bulging out in the mountains like a cut-out cardboard cartoon. The film’s color scheme suggests the luxury that the hotel comes to represent—light pink, regal purple and cherry red radiate from the screen. These are bright and extravagant colors that aren’t seen every day, yet in Anderson’s scenes that take place near or inside of the hotel, the colors appear so frequently that it is impossible to separate these colors from the rest of the film.
Throughout the film, there are oblique references to an impending terrible war. In the third act, Nazi-like fascist soldiers commandeer the hotel for barracks; their flag is a squiggly Z instead of a swastika. It seems rather facetious of Wes Anderson to indifferently imply tragedy while instead focusing entirely on a ridiculous wild goose chase over a painting. There’s nothing wrong with fighting terror with farce—as Anderson’s clear inspirations in Lubitsch’s “To Be Or Not To Be” or the Marx Brother’s “Duck Soup” proved—but Anderson’s Nazis just stand there, an extraneous obstacle that M. Gustave and Zero run past as they pinch their precious painting.
Irreverence is the name of Anderson’s game, but here it looks silly and unnecessary. A logical, emotional narrative comes second to artistry. His characters are always two-dimensional to the point where they are caricatures rather than human beings. This is all well and good, but the film’s third act relies on our empathy of the characters as they must deal with fascism.
The problem is that his characters are not developed enough for the viewer to effectively care about them as they face this sudden addition of such an Important Moral Subject. It seems peculiar that Anderson spent so much time building up M. Gustave and Zero as artificial, only to force us to feel moved by their enduring friendship. In a sense, the absurdity that rests in Wes Anderson’s art leads to the fun of it. I began to roll my eyes only when he attempts to elicit serious emotions from this absurdity.
The experience of watching “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is like vacationing to a beautiful, distant land, but you never leave your luxurious touristy hotel. You enjoy the charming milieu but remain ignorant of the misfortune that has affected this place. Only at the end of your trip, as you depart to the airport, do you catch a glimpse of the poverty the natives live in. But by then it is too late, your visit is over, and the truth is a sideshow rather than something of significance. What I mean by this metaphor is that pretty pictures don’t always translate into deep emotional ideas, especially when perfunctory; but, it’s still worth the trip to revel in the beauty alone.