No one would argue the idea that Wes Anderson is likely the clearest demarcation of an auteur working in mainstream film today. The visual style he established has been honed to a fine point over his seven films, and with The Grand Budapest Hotel, it is apparent that he has no interest in switching gears any time soon. Taking place over four time periods (each with a corresponding aspect ratio that shrinks as the narrative burrows further into the past, as if the mental recollection itself is deteriorating), Anderson’s eighth film follows the life of Zero Moustafa (portrayed by F. Murray Abraham in flashback and Tony Revolori in further flashback) as he joins the ranks of the opulent eponymous hotel as lobby boy under the tutelage of Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the popular and outgoing concierge. Things take a turn when the wealthy and intimately close to Gustave Madame D (Tilda Swinton, completely unrecognizable in some seriously effective makeup work) dies under suspicious circumstances and bequeaths a priceless painting to her twilight lover.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is at its heart a screwball caper, wherein Gustave finds himself framed for Madame D’s murder and on the run from the cops (led by Ed Norton, resplendent in his giant handlebar moustache) and Madame D’s unscrupulous son (Adrien Brody, essentially dressed as Snidely Whiplash) and bodyguard (Willem Dafoe, clad in a black turtleneck with matching skull-emblazoned brass knuckles). But this is just the tip of the iceberg, and as anyone who has seen a trailer or poster can attest, Anderson has populated the fictional country of Zubrowka with a murderer’s row of repertory players (your Bill Murrays, your Jason Schwartzmans, your Owen Wilsons, your Adrien Brodys) and those new to the scene (Fiennes, Lea Seydoux, Saoirse Ronan, many others). It makes for an impressive list on one page, and all the players, new and old, are game for Anderson’s signature style.
Fiennes is especially adept at sliding into this bizarre little parallel world; his comic timing is unrivaled, and he knows exactly how to twist his delivery just so that he can squeeze as much out of Anderson’s script as possible. Indeed, he has a lot to work with, as this is one of Anderson’s more overtly hilarious scripts. Each time Gustave undercuts his upscale flowery language and penchant to quote romantic poetry with a vulgar epithet is good for a chuckle at worst, and the design of some of the more farcical sequences (one particularly involving a trek through a mountain monastery with Dafoe’s character in hot pursuit) are a delight. Such a tone works in the favor of much of the rest of the cast; no one appears out of depth or uncomfortable with his or her charge. With Fiennes manning the wheel, this may be the best ensemble yet in an Anderson film.
The Grand Budapest Hotel also represents an apex in Anderson’s aesthetic style and production design. The hotel itself is best described as a giant pink pastel dollhouse, the sort of prop you would see in Margot Tenenbaum’s room, and its inside matches the expectation of twee whimsy that its exterior presupposes. The hallmarks are all here, from his flat, diorama-esque blocking to its horizontal tracking shots and quirky whip pans. In some ways, Anderson pushes it even further by bringing in a little bit of that Fantastic Mr. Fox magic and using a healthy dose of stop-motion miniature animation during most of the establishing exterior shots (and one memorable chase scene). Anderson isn’t reinventing his wheel, but he is continuing to refine it into a frictionless surface. In the case of this film, it makes for an interesting dichotomy at times. Anderson is not one to shy away from the dark (just watch The Royal Tenenbaums), but the scale is different here, especially as his own vision of fascism through the Nazi lens marches into town. The film is violent, vulgar and epic in a way that we haven’t seen from Anderson before (but not too crazy, this isn’t Tarantino or anything), but still slots into his visual and auditory picture.
Honestly, it’s this choice to blow out his style into this specific subject matter that does The Grand Budapest Hotel a disservice. When he is successful, Anderson always manages to have the stakes of his film match the scope of his aesthetic. Generally, that scope is relatively small. He makes movies about individuals (Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Moonrise Kingdom) or families (The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Bottle Rocket sorta), whose problems and relationships match the toy box style of his films. It is admirable that Anderson has chosen to widen his scope, and present a bigger story with more characters and larger themes, but his style tears at the seams as it labors to stretch over the larger canvas. The dichotomy discussed earlier feels more like a disconnect in practice. Anderson may want to tell the story of this man Gustave and how his perfectly manicured and exacting world is being impinged upon by dark forces (yes, he is likely a stand-in for Anderson himself in some ways), but the actual result of this approach is something ephemeral, a delicate and lovingly made appetizer that evaporates in the mouth before the palate can truly discern its subtle notes. Anderson is working against himself, and he cannot quite pull it off.
It’s a shame, because The Grand Budapest Hotel remains impeccably designed and quite funny throughout, with uniformly excellent performances led by the incomparable Ralph Fiennes (if we are a lucky race, Fiennes will become a regular; he fits so well into Anderson’s worldview). As a pure exercise and evolution of Anderson’s filmography, it has its merits, but its utter lack of staying power once the credits roll is a serious issue. An enjoyable trifle for what it is, if only it hadn’t pushed to be so much more.