Wes Anderson is a man who knows what he wants. He writes, produces and directs all his films. Over the last 20 years, he’s built a very particular body of work, so visually unique as to be a genre unto themselves, instantly recognizable—you can spot a Wes Anderson spoof from a single screencap. There may be no more painstaking visual designer in film today. From letterheads to the open sea, his brand of dollhouse cinema is lavishly and lovingly appointed.
However, for all this unsurpassed mis-en-scene, Anderson’s stories tend to be variations on a theme rather than compelling narratives, staffed with a recurring cast rather than inhabited by characters. These well-costumed collections of quirks sink or swim on their actors. Some are able to carve something resembling a whole from what’s been given to them, while others serve as occasionally-charming placeholders to be moved about as necessary, but lack resonance. Anderson’s most successful moments as a filmmaker occur when he turns his meticulous fondness to characters with the same energy he gives to their surroundings.
There’s certainly rich ground for that here. Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a study in the past. On the surface, it aims to recreate the last glories of a crumbling era, from lushly-carpeted lobbies to the overly-perfumed concierges, the last carriers of a genteel torch before it was forever snuffed out. Beneath this runs a thread of nostalgia that hopes to achieve both a haunting pathos and a certain ironic remove. But as often happens with Anderson, there’s too much love for the trappings, and the necessary narrative distance fails to take hold.
Ralph Fiennes—who does a master’s work trying to linchpin the movie’s arch irony almost singlehandedly while still being charming enough to be worth two hours’ indulgence—throws himself into M. Gustave with well-groomed gusto. Alternately obsequious and disgusted, Fiennes embodies the sort of man who’d get swallowed up with an era. You can’t take the concierge out of the inmate, and Fiennes delivers soup with slick patter that’s comically sublime. But the script loses its way trying to balance his insufferability with his protege Zero’s devotion to him. Unfortunately typical for Anderson, while there’s plenty of material for friction—see Zero’s reaction to Gustave’s gigolo duties with older women he classifies as “cheaper cuts”—Zero’s devotion is taken for granted. For those seeking to understand his loyalty, his character’s left to hang on a protective gesture from Gustave that lunges for social relevance and otherwise assumed to be an offshoot of the general thrill he finds in serving others. It certainly keeps things moving, but feels like an awfully convenient skim. No richer depth is plumbed by any of the dozens of supporting characters, who gamely appear in all their shorthand glory: Saoirse Ronan as Agatha, charming baker with quirky birthmark; Adrien Brody as Dmitri, charming evildoer with quirky art collection; Jeff Goldblum as Deputy Kovacs, charming attorney with quirky Goldblumities, and half a dozen cameos by a secret society of concierges that primarily provide an excuse to stage room keys as introductory intertitles.
Zero (played in youth by Tony Revolori and later by F. Murray Abraham) has perhaps the least enviable position; as a survivor of the gilded age, he’s left to tell the tale in one of Budapest’s three frame stories. Ostensibly, this excess framework seems like an excuse to work through assorted aspect ratios and several eras of production design. However, Zero’s story is Anderson’s entry into the whole. Zero is the messenger, the observer of the outlandish, who has traveled through time to bring this era back to life, summoning it wholesale again from its own shabby Communist-bloc tomb. But no amount of symmetrical framing can make up for the play of nostalgia against history getting subsumed in shenanigans. Despite having many adventures to relate, the older Zero Moustafa can’t seem to summon judgment, sadness, or fondness for any of them. It’s just a story that fills up an evening that inspires a frame story that inspires a frame story that closes without leaving much behind.
Though the film’s greatest love is the Grand Budapest, that pink behemoth with its lofted atrium and claustrophobic elevator lacquered as red as a heart, their caper sends them to all corners of imaginary Zubrowka for a plot that unspools with all the unruffled, stuttering self-awareness of a heist in a silent film: art theft, missing wills, hidden monks, hammers baked into charmingly-iced cookies, and Alpine chase scenes animated in miniature (which Anderson has termed “animatics,” because of course), all edited as crisply as ever at a pace designed to investigate every forgotten corner of his biggest dollhouse yet.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is, as most Anderson movies are, a visual triumph, and it carries the charm of seeing a stock cast of regulars winking at the camera one more time. But the lingering impact of the movie is slighter than it hopes to be, a pastiche full of sound and whimsy, signifying nothing.