With an oeuvre filled with haphazard criminals, ill-adjusted children, seamen, and foxes it probably shouldn’t come as too peculiar that Wes Anderson’s latest features a hotel bellhop as its lead protagonist. What has kept most of Anderson’s work in check from being too precious - a monumental task provided the director’s growing tendency, perhaps even reliance, on grandiosity - is the palpable human emotions that penetrate his work. Anderson’s pictures pulsate with intrinsic human questions on the struggles of identity and family. Rushmore remains his finest achievement, a film so attuned with signs of fragility yet marked with a worldview that so clearly defines his work. It remains a work so inherently within its own stratosphere yet grounded enough to not feel alien. Progressive films have seen Anderson delegate this same combination to varying degrees. It’s with The Grand Budapest Hotel that his stylistic tendencies reach new heights, but subsequently his narrative capacities prove most alien. It’s his most ambitious and busiest work yet; it’s also his most disappointing.
The structure of The Grand Budapest Hotel alone presents a challenge in its Russian doll design. The first in a series of geometrically-inclined images is of a young girl holding a book; the title reads “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. Anderson moves things right along at the sight of that same author (Tom Wilkinson) addressing the audience directly as he recounts the series of events that led to the inspiration of the work. Jude Law now functions as the young author who, upon his stay at the Budapest, runs into the owner Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Their budding friendship results in a dinner conversation that allows Mr. Moustafa to reflect on how he came to own the Budapest, a hotel now on the brink of collapse.
Thankfully, the narrative settles in its 1.37:1 aspect ratio where Mr. Moustafa recounts his journey as a young bellhop to the womanizing M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). As the hotel concierge, M. Gustave’s sexual exploits with many of the older women of the Budapest have afforded him a notorious reputation - a reputation that causes uproar when one of his oldest lovers dies and leaves behind a significant inheritance. Accusations against Gustave result in his eventual imprisonment, allowing Anderson to delve into narrative reference points that are right out of the book of directors like John Sturges, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
The film is massive in structure, size, and ambition. Even Anderson’s bigger films, such as The Life Aquatic or the large cast of The Royal Tenenbaums, pale in comparison to the magnitude of The Grand Budapest Hotel. But is its size justified? I’m not too sure. The clear emotional anchor throughout the film is F. Murray Abraham’s Mr. Moustafa, a character reflecting back to the swashbuckling of his youth with his mentor and to-be wife. But while Anderson has shown a keen ability to extract humor out of those in crisis (I think of Ben Stiller’s father character in The Royal Tenenbaums), there’s little intermingling of comedy and dramatic pathos. The comedy, unlike most of his films, feels a bit flat with an overreliance on vulgarity: it’s an especially violent film. Anderson has shown an ability to utilize violence in very dramatic and humorous intervals, from the suicide sequence in The Royal Tenenbaums to the ill-prepared criminals of Bottle Rocket. But here, death and violence are arbitrary factors to the picture’s design - there’s simply no weight or impact, it merely dissolves.
This dissolving aspect defines much of The Grand Budapest Hotel’s impact. As the Russian doll structure returns to its original form, Anderson attempts to achieve a sense of completion. It works, giving the picture a clearer sense of pathos that largely felt absent through most of the picture’s runtime. But in his efforts to create a storybook fairytale, Anderson could’ve likely presented the film as a book and achieved something of greater affect. The end results, with all its quirk and idiosyncrasies in a wave of Andersonian tendencies that mutes ambitious scale into what doesn’t ever feel particularly cinematic. A sacrilege statement from a director renowned for his visual elegance and Kubrickian compositions. It’s clear we’re a long way from the grounded poignancy of Rushmore.