"Did he just throw my cat out the window?"
It's no secret that I'm a huge Wes Anderson fan. From Bottle Rocket to Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson got off to a tremendous start with one of the best trios of films to start a career ever. His fourth film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, is an acquired taste to say the least, as was its follow-up The Darjeeling Limited. The animated Fantastic Mr. Fox was just that, fantastic, but all of his worst attributes came to the surface with his last film, Moonrise Kingdom. It played more like a film made by any one of the countless Anderson copycats like Jared Hess, and made me apprehensive about his next film.
Thankfully the trailers for his eighth film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, looked like a return to form, and with a comedic performance from Ralph Fiennes, it looked like a can't-miss proposition. So is it just that, or has he officially gone off the deep end, never to return? Read on to find out...
The Grand Budapest Hotel opens on a girl walking through a cemetery and stopping at the shrine to a famous author (Tom Wilkinson) and cracking open his final book. The story then flashes back to 1985 where he begins telling the story of a trip he took to the fictional country of Zubrowka in 1968. The younger author (Jude Law) stayed at the now dilapidated eponymous lodge, wherein he meets the owner, renowned philanthropist Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Moustafa tells the author the story of how he came into possession of the hotel, and the story flashes back once more to 1932.
Here we meet Moustafa as a young man played by Tony Revolori, working as a lobby boy in the hotel at the height of its opulence. His boss, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) trains him in the ways running a successful hotel, which Moustafa discovers, for Gustave at least, involves romancing the older ladies that stay at the hotel. One of these clients, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) suddenly drops dead one day, bequeathing to Gustave a rare painting, much to the chagrin of her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Gustave absconds with the painting, and upon returning to the hotel, discovers that he is now being charged with Madame D's murder.
That's only the tip of the iceberg for this film, as it weaves several more story lines and characters into its tale, including but not limited to: a fascist regime waging a war, an imprisonment, a prison break, a downhill slalom chase, murder, pastries, and a love story between Moustafa and a young pastry chef named Agatha (Saoirse Ronan). To say that the film is overstuffed for one which runs a shade over ninety minutes is an overstatement, and that's the main problem with the film. It's such a hodgepodge of half baked ideas, executed with incredible precision, but none of which amount to anything more than a pastiche of diversions and subplots that ultimately distract and derail any forward momentum being made by the narrative.
While the film isn't a total wash, and the first half hour is very funny, it becomes so bogged down in minutiae, one-note characters, and subplots that go nowhere, that by around the halfway point, it becomes hard to care about anything anymore. Much like Anderson's lesser works, there is no growth or change to be found in any of these characters. They all just sort of stagnate and serve a function that does not allow them to be characters so much as they are living set dressing. Paper dolls in an elaborately constructed fantasy world that is fun to look at, but has absolutely zero depth. It's the very worst of what Anderson could have become following The Royal Tenenbaums, and it only seems to be exacerbated at this point in his career.
While Anderson's earliest films, in particular those first three, pay homage to Luis Buñuel, this film feels more of a piece with the work of Ernst Lubitsch. Flowery language, slapstick, and tons of frivolity. But whereas Lubitsch knew enough to give his characters some depth, these characters have literally nothing going on beneath the surface. Here's this one note, now hammer it on this piano until I tell you to stop. This seems to be the way that Anderson wants to make films nowadays. That's all well and good, but he's really lost sight of the forest for the trees, and it's impossible to engage with these films on anything beyond the most superficial level imaginable.
As for the performances, a few standout and the rest are an interchangeable collage of utter forgettability. Ralph Fiennes does a bang-up job of handling the absolutely preposterous dialogue, and gives it a life that it most certainly would not have had on the page. One can't help but think of Harrison Ford's famous quip to George Lucas "you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can't say it." That Fiennes manages to give as good a performance as he does in spite of the absurd dialogue he was given is a testament to the fact that he is one of our best living actors. Anderson regulars Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe manage to do the most they can with their horrendously shallow caricatures, and Abraham, Law, and Wilkinson in particular are the best of the newcomers.
Adrien Brody may have proven himself here to be the worst actor alive. He is utterly unable to create a believable character, and flounders with the shell of one he was given here. Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, and even longtime Anderson collaborator Owen Wilson are reduced to blink and you'll miss them cameos, making their participation seem more mandatory than willing. It's not unlike the phase that Christopher Guest got to by For Your Consideration, where he had such a vast stable of actors, he couldn't even give half of them anything worthwhile to do.
While the set design, cinematography, editing, and costumes are all gorgeously conceived, they do all the heavy lifting because the script and a large percentage of the actors are just sort of flopping around like fish out of water. Even the gimmick of changing aspect ratios to fit the different time periods in which the film is set falls flat since the vast majority of the film is shot in what's known as "Academy ratio," or 1.37:1. It's not conducive to the kind of films Anderson makes, and for someone that uses anamorphic as well as he does, it's disheartening to see him confine himself this way.
It's more sad than it is anger inducing, but Anderson's best days are clearly behind him. Unless he can find another collaborator like Wilson or Noah Baumbach to help him write these scripts and add some dimension to these characters, there's no rebound in sight. This is his first solo script, and it shows. He has no interest in character, and just views them as another piece of the puzzle he's building, no more or less important than the color scheme. The Grand Budapest Hotel truly felt like it could have been a return to form in a big way, but it's merely a bold statement that he's continuing down a road on which some may not want to join him. I'm sorry to say that I must now count myself among those no longer willing to go on the journey.
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]