The films of Wes Anderson are essentially critic-proof. If you like one, you will like them all, and bad reviews won’t keep you away.
By Noah Gittell
The films of Wes Anderson are essentially critic-proof. If you like one, you will like them all, and bad reviews won’t keep you away. On the other hand, if Anderson’s films are not your cup of tea, no amount of lavish praise in your local paper is going to convince you that his latest is worth your time. Essentially, Anderson has been making the same film over and over again for nearly two decades now — his meticulously-crafted, doll house designs are on full display in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Rushmore,” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” for example — and despite a valiant effort by his newest leading man, his latest film is just another entry in an increasingly frustrating filmography.
Another hallmark of a Wes Anderson film is that the lead character is always a thinly veiled version of Anderson himself and always shares the characteristics of a film director. In “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” it’s M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a hotel concierge whose job consists of equal parts passion and attention to detail.
In the first reel, we see him walking down a long hallway off the lobby of the film’s titular hotel, accomplishing many tasks in short succession: He signs off on a dining room item, checks in on a regular guest, and writes notes to be handed off to his flunkies. The shot will be familiar to cinephiles; it is clearly intended as an homage to Francois Truffaut’s famous “What is a director” sequence from “Day for Night,” but it also calls to mind an American Express commercial Anderson made that served as an homage to Truffaut.
It’s all very self-referential, and to be fair, Anderson acknowledges the artifice. Like a few of his earlier works, “Budapest” is framed as a story within a story. The film opens on a young girl with a book with the same name as the movie, at which point we meet the book’s author (Tom Wilkinson), who informs us that he is about to tell a story. Next thing we know, we are inside his book, traveling with a younger version of himself (Jude Law) at the hotel, where he hears the hotel’s origin story from its owner (an effectively warm F. Murray Abraham).
After navigating the film’s “Russian doll” structure, we finally get to the story at hand. Gustave thoroughly enjoys his life at the hotel, but he is forced to go on the run when one of his guests – a rich old lady who enjoyed a, let’s say, passionate relationship with Gustave – dies and leaves a priceless painting to him, much to the dismay of her greedy son (Adrien Brody). The police are convinced that Gustave was responsible for his death, so he leaves the warm embrace of his hotel for the the cold winter of the film’s fictional Eastern European nation, which is in the throes of a fictional war.
Anderson relies on his usual company of actors, with Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Edward Norton popping up in various roles. The community theater approach to film is surely fun for him and his actors, but it has a distancing effect for the viewer. It’s a bit sad to see these actors, so gifted and dedicated to their craft, reduced to a series of cameos. They are never given a chance to build well-rounded characters or contribute meaningfully to the story. Instead, each is like another of Anderson’s props, lovely to look at but inanimate.
Ralph Fiennes is the exception. His Gustave is unabashedly emotional, as well as heroic and dashing, and Fiennes manages to break through Anderson’s tight grip to create a unique and memorable character. If only the rest of the film were as compelling as its protagonist. We may enjoy watching the wacky plot transpire, and we will certainly be impressed with how diligently Anderson pulls the strings, but despite its explosions, murders, jail breaks, and gun fights, nothing in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” seems to matter very much, which makes it hardly worth seeing at all.
My Rating: Skip it Altogether