The Grand Budapest Hotel is nominally concerned with the picaresque exploits of M. Gustav, an old world hotelier (Ralph Fiennes), and his new-found immigrant “Lobby Boy,” Zero (Tony Revolori), as they cavort about a fictional Eastern European nation in search of a particularly important work of art, but it’s primarily and unsurprisingly concerned with Wes Anderson’s current working definition of whimsy. It may also intend to express an ambivalent perspective about the disintegration of Old World values in the face on encroaching globalization in the middle of the 20th century, but the film concentrates far more fully on an imagined aesthetic of that transformation than on any committed sociopolitical reasoning or exploration. At this point in his career, one likely no longer attends a Wes Anderson film for any reason aside from one’s personal predilection for his particular brand of high-brow kitsch — and maybe, it must be noted, one’s enjoyment of a certain strain of elitism that kitsch remains tied up in.
It’s in this regard that we must perhaps regard him as the strongest expression of American auteurism working today, particularly if one defines that in 1960s terms (a timeline which, it should be noted, points towards his increasing irrelevance as a cultural force outside of American Express ads). The auteur’s latest film proves no major exception to his standard modus operandi — constructed from cardboard models and heavily filigreed storybook tableaus, and featuring an intentionally convoluted plot nestled amongst a series of interlocking framing devices stretching a timeline from the present back to the 1940s, where the bulk of the film is set. A standard mix of Anderson regulars — including Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman — are joined by newcomers to his fold trying out their own modulation on the director’s deliberately stilted acting style. It’s a Wes Anderson film. In other, more contemporary, words: it’s a Wes Anderson branding exercise from front-to-back.
And yet, it’s the degree to which this branding exercise is adhered to and the discipline with which it is organized that makes The Grand Budapest Hotel the director’s most satisfying and worthwhile film in recent memory. This fact is particularly apparent when one considers Budapest alongside Anderson’s last attempt to make a film with such a narrow-minded aesthetic focus, the truly execrable The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). The difference here is the director’s commitment to a comparably limited set of tools: nearly every shot in the film contains some combination of flat, theatrical staging; centered compositions; 90-degree whip pans; and/or forward tracks with no rotation. The art design adheres uniformly to a proto- (or is it post-?) theatrical art-deco aesthetic, and the dialogue is a series of variations of timing based on the interrelation of arch commentary or winking exposition. The music is comically on-the-nose. What’s crucial here is not the specifics of the ingredients, but the rigidity with which the director abstains from any other expressive possibilities.
It’s all effervescent fluff, but the film is so deeply committed to sussing out the full extent of the aesthetic possibilities in this particular arrangement of fluff that, in its own way, it winds up as a much of a committed contemporary formalist venture as, say, a Béla Tarr film. The Grand Budapest Hotel succeeds where The Life Aquatic face-planted insofar as its goal is not merely the production of whimsy by whatever means necessary, but rather the production of whimsy by extremely restricted means, which proves at once immediately satisfying to observe and vaguely interesting to consider.
The fission, then, results in the interaction of this exercise in restrictive technique with its more explicitly “thematic” concerns. Oddly, as noted above, the film is Anderson’s most politically loaded to date, even if his approach encourages us to treat it otherwise. Its pre-Fascist Eastern European setting would seem almost too timely given Russia’s current actions in Ukraine, but the the arrival of a half-comedic re-imagining of Nazis plays more as genre-referencing in the early 2000s po-mo mode than as the deliberate, uncomfortably light-hearted satire it appears to aim for. It’s this empty space between satire and caricature that the film tends towards as a whole, with characters aiming for knowing caricature and playing more as mere gags: Willem Defoe’s merciless assassin is a scowling cartoon that isn’t nearly as funny as Anderson wants him to be, and while the young Revolori does wonderful things with Zero’s dialogue, the director can’t handle Revolori’s role as a synechdoche for all refugees, despite a pointed, late-film dialogue between Zero and Gustav that clearly indicates that’s what he’s aiming for.
When the film ends with a weirdly direct and decidedly ugly insistence on the ultimate good inherent in Old European as White Savior of the world’s refugees, what’s jarring is not that The Grand Budapest Hotel has some strong predilections for traditional high culture and a fairly stilted worldview, but rather the relief into which it throws the rest of the film. When it’s whirring along as a sort of filmic automaton, dazzling in its technical and mechanical perfection and admirable for its own lack of utility, the film becomes strangely commendable. When Anderson tips his hand and reveals the worldview upon which this aesthetic rests, it’s far less enthralling.