Watching The Grand Budapest Hotel — with its decade-jumping aspect-ratio changes, its candy-colored confections of costume and set design, willful whimsical touches and staid, symmetrical compositions — it’s easy to see that it’s the most Wes Anderson movie Wes Anderson has ever made. Regrettably, that’s very different from stating that it’s enjoyable, or engaging, or any good as anything other than a highlight reel of the writer-director’s tics, quirks and affectations. There are funny moments in Grand Budapest, to be sure — Ralph Fiennes’ squirmy, craven, ignobly noble concierge Gustave H. is a cartwheeling carnival of comedy neurosis — and there are lovely moments, too , like when the film’s elegantly nested set of flashbacks and narrations boil down to one small, sweet reminder that every hurtling, tense, present-tense moment of our lives will one day be seen, if at all, at a cool remove long after our passing made out of memory, memoir and ritual.
But within moments, as soon as the retro glory of the Grand Budapest Hotel is introduced via a mix of two-bit special effects work and fifty-cent words in the narration, you realize that there’s a very high probability that this film, for all of its manic invention and dry-as-dust whimsy, is basically going to be more of the elegantly-constructed same from Anderson. Anderson’s movies have, as his budgets have gone up, tended to function more and more as airless dollhouses, perfectly crafted down to the baseboards and the fabrics and still airless, lifeless and suffocated. Rushmore, Anderson’s finest film, didn’t have the money to create a universe whole and entire; forced into the real world, Rushmore gained a very real emotion, energy and feel from that decision. (The Fantastic Mr. Fox also stands out in the top of Anderson’s work, more than possibly because all of that finicky, just-so design aesthetic didn’t overwhelm the characters precisely because it was how the characters came to life.)
But watching as fawning, flattering fey concierge Gustav H. educating Lobby Boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) in the subtle art of the concierge in the ’30s turns into a ’60s meeting between the now-grown Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) and a young British author (Jude Law) turns into the ’80s memoirs of that now-older writer (Tom Wilkinson) and then as that novel becomes the source of a silent pilgrimage in the modern day, the problem isn’t the magic trick; it’s that we’ve seen if before. And when the real history of Europe gets incorporated into Anderson’s fantastic Europe — with Nazi-equivalents called the “Zig-Zags” and the hotel’s continuing fall from a long-lost shabby greatness during a pseudo-Communist era — I found myself wondering if the human beings who actually lived through those murderous spasms of dictatorship that wracked a whole world found them as funny, or amusingly well-designed, or appreciated different aspects-ratio shifts as they moved from one kind of dictatorship to another. (And yes, it’s the same kind of pop-cultural ransacking of history Tarantino does, but Tarantino at least does it with something like stakes, sense and proportion; for Anderson, it’s just literal window dressing. With the film’s premiere in Berlin, also, one can’t help but think that Anderson’s funsy version of European history must have gone over, in some quarters, like a lead balloon, much as deserved boos met Sophia Coppola’s clueless, privileged Marie Antoinette at Cannes)
Grand Budapest is distressing if only because it is one of those films which proves that its filmmaker can no longer discern a sumptuous visual groove from an over-familiar, over-designed rut. Anderson famously showed startling promise, but after Grand Budapest, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that while he may be a great filmmaker, he’ll never make a truly great film. (I can no more imagine an Anderson film that tackles politics than I can picture Anderson himself tackling a politician.) Grand Budapest Hotel is one of those films that reminds you of the great adage about bad Broadway musicals where you walk out not humming the songs but praising the scenery; Anderson’s genius for geometric designs have taken him this far, but a little real human feeling and a lot of real-world filming would do more for both his career and audience than yet another of his seemingly endless, seemingly fruitless clockwork comedic contraptions.