Review: ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ Is Wes Anderson’s Most Whimsical Contradiction

Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel opens tomorrow in New York and LA before going wide the following week. Here’s my review from the Berlin Film Festival last month.

Live From Berlin: Warm Your Hands ‘Round The Whimsy Hearth

Wes Anderson didn’t used to be so controversial. Reaction to his work didn’t seem so perfectly divided into warring factions of “greatest thing ever” and “hipster bullshit.” But I think I understand it. Wholeheartedly enjoying Wes Anderson’s work these days necessarily involves certain concessions, specifically, to cutesyness and faux-naivete (barriers to entry being key components in creating cult popularity), while ignoring him completely just seems like walling yourself off to a certain kind of greatness (quality being the other component). “Just throw out your critical faculties, you’ll love it,” the ethos of all “true fans,” of anything.

At the root of the infuriating (and soon-to-be more so) Wes Anderson dichotomy is that he seems to have reached his creative peak as a visual artist and stagnated into self-parody as a storyteller simultaneously. So it is that Grand Budapest Hotel can feel like both his most sophisticated and his most immature work, his greatest visual achievement and his most irritating precious costume party circle jerk. Every scene is like some intricate music box, with ornately costumed characters dancing whimsically on moving tracks while Gilded Age orientalist caricatures explode from windows and pop up from trap doors to spin around, glibly spouting archaic vernacular and reading bullet-pointed lists of curios. What a ride! It’s a Twee World, after all/it’s a Tweeeeee Woooorld aaaaaaaafter aaall…

It feels like being on an Edwardian-era hay ride in a snowy Alpine village, or trapped inside the music video for a harpsichord trio. I say these things as compliments, mostly, because no one but Wes Anderson could so beautifully orchestrate such a grand, elaborate chess match between such elegantly-painted figurines. The downside of Grand Budapest Hotel is that, much as it would be for a shop selling antique doll houses, it can feel bloodless, lacking a human element. You’re afraid to touch any of the figurines or sumptuous fabrics, for fear of damaging the delicate winding mechanism in the chalet’s cuckoo clock. Do you know how hard it is to respool a Cuckoo?! The Cuckoo carpenter charges a fortune, and he only works on St. Smithin’s Day! Look, but don’t touch. Wash your hands, keep your voice down, and for God’s sake, don’t break anything. In fact, better to keep all movements small and physical gestures to the minimum, just to be on the safe side. This is a Wes Anderson movie, dammit, not one of your raves or sport-ball exhibitions.

That is to say, the downside of incredible ornate music box scenes is that it tends to render the characters as sexless wooden figurines. When something is designed to this degree, there’s very little room for spontaneity. In some ways, the campiness of Grand Budapest Hotel is a benefit in this regard, leaving Anderson unencumbered by the need to facilitate emotional investment, dispensing with the pretense that he’s trying to tell you anything about the human condition and leaving him free to create a two-hour animatic of visual wonder and composed scenery. It almost feels like a movie Max Fischer or Margot Tenenbaum would’ve made with an unlimited budget – visually dazzling, but basically with all the emotional range of a precocious child.