The Grand Budapest Hotel is the latest film from that gentleman of American cinema Wes Anderson. His is the dapper sensibility that has previously brought us the immense pleasures of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and most recently the popular Moonrise Kingdom. Of all of the auteurs presently active in the states, his aesthetic is the most starkly recognisable. His is a cinema of fastidiously organised yet curiously flat framing, brightly costumed oddball characters and, most often, acutely realised family dramas that play out in increasingly bizarre scenarios.
His latest seems likely to be his most successful and crowd-pleasing yet. Following a series of framing situations which slot into one another like matryoshka dolls, we eventually settle on the story of Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), esteemed concierge of the titular establishment in the 1930s. Gustave H. takes immense pride in his responsibilities, displaying an exacting attention to detail that mirrors the apparent obsessiveness of Wes Anderson himself.
Gustave is droll, camp and above all attentive to his duties, prone to occasional liaisons with some of the more senior guests. One such tryst lands him in all sorts of bother with the immediate family when the madame in question is found dead in suspicious circumstances, more so when it is discovered that Gustave has been named heir to a priceless painting titled ‘Boy With Apple.’ As the family dispute his entitlement with their fists, Gustave and his faithful lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) make off with the painting, thus setting into motion a madcap tale of prison escapes and alpine chases.
More than ever before Anderson plays this one directly for the funny bone, and on that score the film is a frequent success, piling on ridiculous scenarios with the breathless efficiency of a cartoon feature. Anderson has worked in animation before (the wonderful Fantastic Mr Fox), and he brings much of the same comic sensibilities to the fore here. Where The Grand Budapest Hotel comes unstuck, however, is in what seems to have been sacrificed in order to present us this overly busy, constantly crazy affair – humanity.
Compare The Grand Budapest Hotel to Rushmore for a moment and you’ll see just how Anderson’s affection for overly elaborate design has intensified. His aesthetic was in full force then, back in ’98, but there was room to breathe also. Not so here. As Anderson amps up his own eccentricities, as he exaggerates the sheer Wesiness of everything, so perspective seems to have been lost slightly. Rushmore worked because it balanced his affectations with beautifully nuanced characters. There was a wistfulness and ennui which allowed us to connect to the people amid all the charming extras we were being offered.
With The Grand Budapest Hotel there is no such sense of connection. The bloated roster of characters here at two-dimensional, one and all; eye-catching caricatures that Anderson frantically shuffles about his admittedly delightful little farce. The film is undeniably entertaining, but it has absolutely no depth whatsoever. It’s as flimsy as the hotel’s pop-up book exterior. Even our central figure Gustave H. offers little for us to connect to. Fiennes is terrific in the role, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a Peter Sellers facsimile of a person; funny to watch, impossible to take seriously.
The same goes across the board. It’d be quicker to name the actors from Anderson’s past films that don’t appear in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Whenever one of them makes an appearance it feels like a self-gratifying cameo. They work as easter eggs for his devoted fans, but the roles are largely so small as to essentially waste the talents behind them. They become, simply, distracting. Take Tilda Swinton for example, unrecognisable behind the mountain of make-up and latex that turns her into octogenarian Madame D., or the likes of Bill Murray and Edward Norton, whose combined contributions to the film would run far shorter than the movie’s resplendent trailer.
This heightened level of indulgence is itself a microcosm of the film as a whole. On the one hand it is all agreeably silly – and there’s nothing wrong with a film that’s out to be daft above all else, of course there isn’t – but on the other there’s little beyond that silliness to particularly warrant any interest. For a film so hectic with whimsy and wordplay I found myself… bored. For all its kookiness, even The Life Aquatic rooted itself in a part-way engaging family drama. The Grand Budapest Hotel offers no such anchor.
It’s as though Anderson, continually disappointed by the fallibility of the real world, has burrowed down his own rabbit hole for escape, and inadvertently shut us out.
I left the film perplexed by it. The audience as a whole seemed receptive to the gags and the characters, and those whom I saw it with spoke fondly of it… Yet I had been left cold. Was I looking too closely for something ‘more’ and in the process failed to see the wood for the trees? Is it not acceptable for a film to simply be as sugary and unnecessary as a frosted strawberry cupcake?
That’s what The Grand Budapest Hotel is. And if that’s what you’re after it will amply reward you. To the legions of devout Wes Anderson fans, nothing I’ve said here will discourage you I’m sure, and I genuinely hope you all have a wonderful time. I even periodically count myself among your number. But not this time. Like that frosted strawberry cupcake The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fleetingly pleasurable experience. Sickly sweet in the moment, but I wouldn’t ever consider it a main course.
I’m afraid I’ll be waiting on room service to bring me something more filling, call me a spoil sport if you wish.