starring Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Edward Norton, Tony Revolori
written and directed by Wes Anderson
by Walter Chaw I'd be hard-pressed to think of many sequences in the movies better than the two minutes from Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums where Richie gets picked up at the Green Line Bus by his adopted sister Margot following a lengthy absence. It's beautifully composed, emotionally weighted, and punctuated with the best use of Nico in a sentence, ever. There's a rub there--my favourite Wes Anderson films are the ones that use music in this way; I ally him in my mind with artists like Sofia Coppola and, sure, Quentin Tarantino. I think the full potential of film is only really reached when all the elements that go into a movie--the seven arts, as it were--are used in concert. Wes Anderson, as he utilizes fewer and fewer pop songs in his films (his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is his first without any), is losing emotional complexity as his hermetically-sealed, obsessive-compulsive dreamscapes become increasingly complex. Consider the moment from Django Unchained where our heroes ride into act two to Jim Croce's "I Got a Name." It's iconic, transformative; the scene has a quarter of its power without the agency of that song. Tarantino truly gets it. When Anderson opens The Darjeeling Limited with The Kinks' "This Time Tomorrow," letting the scene play in slow-motion as Adrien Brody's character tries to outrun the ghost of his father, wow. I remember hearing about the introductory tracking shot of the research vessel in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, how Anderson was possibly planning on scoring it with a Radiohead song ("How to Disappear Completely," if memory serves) and how that potential marriage gave me a shiver of anticipation. The farther Anderson falls into his navel, the clearer it is that he no longer gets what he used to get, swallowed whole by the grey beast solipsism.
For The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson creates a doll's house once again: a country entire (after the last one's island) and a war to destabilize it. He harks back to end-of-the-empire fare like The Lady Vanishes, aping that picture's climax and then commenting a time or two on the idea that basic decency, today rare in the human species, was nearing its extinction generations ago, doomed by tradition and manners. It's the manners that Anderson's trying to excuse in his own work now, as if he knows it's all getting out of hand but, hey, isn't it better down here in the basement with the tin men I've painted to re-enact the little Bull Runs on this table? Just like that scale model of a Civil War battle, the outcome of The Grand Budapest Hotel is never in doubt--no matter the meticulousness of its simulacra--nor, as a consequence, do the tribulations of his tin soldiers have much emotional heft and attachment. Which is not to say that Anderson doesn't try to inject father issues into the tale of concierge par excellence M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his tutelage of "Lobby Boy" orphan Zero (Tony Revolori), which leads from one flashback to another and back to a mid-current where Zero, grown into F. Murray Abraham, relates his sweeping tale of ruin to a half-interested author (Jude Law) who grows into Tom Wilkinson writing a book--who grows into a statue of the author played by Wilkinson, to which a young woman pays her respects whilst reading, yes, The Grand Budapest Hotel. It's tempting to call this structure a series of nesting dolls, given the Eastern European suggestions of the settings and title, but doing so is as adorably twee and empty as The Grand Budapest Hotel itself.
In essence, the film is about Zero, who's at the mercy of detailed list-maker and taskmaster M. Gustave, losing his innocence when an aged spinster (Tilda Swinton, terribly wasted) dies, leaving her nasty son (Adrien Brody) and her nasty son's nasty henchman, Jopling (Willem Dafoe), in a rage once it's discovered that M. Gustave offered carnal comfort to dear mother in her last days. Fiennes finds humanity in Anderson's character sketch, as does newcomer Revolori. The rest is all just carefully-posed eccentricity, the very manifestation of hipsterism and all the weariness that implies. It's affectation without authenticity, unseemly Francophlia with only real love for the opportunities for affectation such an affliction provides. I'm fascinated by the division between the audience that adores the Wes Anderson before The Fantastic Mr. Fox (where he first tasted the fruit of absolute, monolithic control over a production) and the audience that adores him after. I find there's little crossover. There's not a ten-minute stretch in The Royal Tenenbaums I can watch without weeping--it's the truest emotional conduit I have to my grief for my father's death and the ruin of our relationship before it. Yet there's not one moment The Grand Budapest Hotel (or Moonrise Kingdom before it) that moves me even in a basic way: not when Anderson dedicates his film to suicidal Austrian playwright Stefan Zweig, not even when he mocks up an Egon Schiele line-drawing to introduce an idea of subversion into his hermetic universe.
Two moments from the film define Anderson for me now: the first is when M. Gustave is called a "faggot" and ripostes upon a subsequent taunt that there's a logical gap between assignation of that term and his having fucked someone's mother. (An observation answered with, "Well, you're bisexual.") It's not funny, because it's trying hard to be cute and then also pithy and then also political and self-aware, and it's impossible for so many things to simultaneously occupy the same space. The other moment is the reveal of Harvey Keitel, shirtless, in one of the endless parade of cameos--and how poor Harvey can't seem to stop himself from twitching and flexing self-consciously in denial of his age, perhaps, or at least his obvious discomfort with it. Here's one of our most physical, most intimate of actors asked to be a prop, and the strain shows. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a clockwork contraption built with obsessive detail and care that has no function. Without L. Frank Baum's built-in irony and affirmation, it's Dorothy's Tin Man (as well as her Straw Man, when it pontificates about the fallen man), and its effect is something like one of those Cirque du Soleil travelling tent shows. It's a wonder, a marvel, a sensual delight; and when it's over, you don't feel it's worth spending the ten bucks for the memento of a program. The cure for its emptiness is Anderson's own early work, of course, but I'm reminded of something a frail Pauline Kael told a young Anderson about his Rushmore: "I don't know what you have here." Six films later, I think the three of us (Kael, me, Anderson) are in total alignment at last.