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.
The story, the tale of an Alpine hotel told in flashback (with each time period a different aspect ratio), through the eyes of its now owner and one-time Lobby Boy, concerns a murder plot in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, the deceased (Tilda Swinton) being a mistress of the Grand Budapest Hotel’s famed concierge, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), to whom she has bequeathed a valuable painting called “The Boy With The Apple.” Drawn into the web are the Lobby Boy, Zero (younger version of the narrator, F. Murray Abraham), Zero’s girlfriend, a baker played by Saoirse Ronan, the hotel’s manager, played by Jeff Goldblum, the mistress’s jealous, foul-mouthed son (Adrien Brody), and his thuggish henchman, played by dracula-toothed Willem Dafoe. They’re all fun to look at, and that’s kind of the point. The plot is mostly just a mechanism to lead us from one elaborately choreographed tea cup ride to the next, like the current carrying the boats in Pirates of the Caribbean (the ride, I mean). We get to watch Wes Anderson play in his sandbox, staging elaborate set pieces equally reminiscent of German Expressionism, Delicatessen-style visual absurdism, Jacque Tati visual comedy, and Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations. That alone is enough of a draw that you don’t need much believability to pull you along, or the kind of laughs that you used to find in Wes Anderson films, before the characters had completed their petrification into figurines.
And by the way, could there be a better place to premiere a movie about imperial-era Alpine villages than February in Berlin? It was like coming in out of the cold for two hours of visual Swiss Miss. You could practically see the journalists giggling at each other with steaming breath, warming ourselves over the whimsy hearth. (Arriving late, I had to buy my ticket from a kindly German scalper. Just before the film started, I overheard someone behind me say, in German-accented English, “I guess if you ever want to be a director, just wear a scarf,” apropos of I’m not sure what. Anyway, it had atmosphere).
That said, even making all of these allowances in order to enjoy the kind of film Wes Anderson wants to make, there are still some particular Wes Andersonisms that I can’t help but find intensely irritating. The precious needle edges far into the puke zone when you see that Saoirse Ronan’s character has a giant birthmark shaped like Mexico on a her cheek. Which is bad enough as it is, without having another character comment on it, which he does. Anderson also stages yet another child wedding, which is puke-worthy as much for the pedophilic undertones as it is for the hackneyed bullshit Hallmark card overtones. Anderson’s little kid relationships are so fake grown-up and yet so fake chaste at the same time, they’re like Patton Oswalt’s bit about G-rated filth come to life. Adolescent sexuality is so strange and compellingly bizarre that it’s truly painful to see it molded into some wax wedding cake topper for a sorority girl’s bulletin board collage. In Rushmore, Max Fischer had a weird, unrequited love affair with a widowed teacher. In Royal Tenenbaums Richie wanted to bang his adopted sister. Both of those relationships are so much more compelling and so true, so just weird enough, than little kids who fall in love with each other and get married and everything works out fine. GROSS. I’d rather watch pregnant dwarf amputee scat porn than two child-mannequins-dressed-by-adults play house. I just imagine Wes Anderson taking two confused pre-teens, saying “I want you for my doll house” in his best Buffalo Bill voice. Phew.
So now, do I downplay Wes Anderson’s brilliant visual compositions, or his stunted characterizations? I can do neither. The best I can do is write a review no one will like.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.
Note from the screening in Berlin: People were so damned happy to see this film they were taking pictures of their tickets. Naturally I took pictures of them taking pictures of their tickets.