Disclaimer: Wes Anderson is the man behind four of my favorite films of all time (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, The Fantastic Mr. Fox). I approach every new release of his with a fervor reserved for few other directors. So it shouldn't be surprising that I walked into The Grand Budapest Hotel with lofty expectations. And I left...well, I left feeling unfulfilled. Anderson brought some fresh complexity to what I thought would be another one of his colorful, emotionally fulfilling romps, but it seemed like a bit of his magic was left behind in the process.
The plot revolves around M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a concierge at the titular hotel who is known to get very comfortable with some of his older female patrons. Just as he's wrapped up a conquest with Tilda Swinton's Madame D, her unexpected death leads to a heated interaction with her jealous family. With only his new lobby boy (Tony Revolori) by his side, Gustave must prove his faithfulness and reclaim his rightful place at the Grand Budapest.
If this sounds more ambitious than the traditional Anderson story, you're right. It bounces from country to country, landscape to landscape, era to era, with new characters appearing at every turn. But it's still easy to follow and notably split into his occasional brand of grandiose-sounding chapters, ultimately feeling like a conscious attempt to break from the traditional Wes Anderson paradigm. We may look back at Grand Budapest in several years as "that one where he really tried to find the perfect mix of the old and the new."
What's old: Meticulously designed sets; deadpan dialogue; a cast packed with some old favorites (Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody).
What's new: A departure from the "let's go on a journey" theme that shaped The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom; a typically stone-serious lead (Fiennes) embracing his charismatic side, a few new faces (Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, Mathieu Almaric).
What really stands out, however, is the tone. Grand Budapest doesn't quite resemble anything in Anderson's backlog. It's darker, more downtrodden. There's the occasional snippet of merriment, but it's often accompanied by struggle and death. A scene where Dafoe's Jopling stalks Goldblum's Deputy Kovacs through an empty museum had a built-in tension that felt far beyond anything Anderson had aimed for in the past, with an unexpectedly stark conclusion to boot. Even if it didn't always fit, the effort was a welcome treat.
But with his embracing of the new, the old suffers. Not enough time is devoted to the romance between Revolori's Zero and Saoirse Ronan's Agatha. Seemingly meant to be the film's backbone, we're left trusting their love because several characters remark upon it. Along the same lines, the bond between Fiennes' Gustave and Revolori's Zero never reaches the heights of Steve Zissou and Ned, Max Fischer and Herman Blume, Royal Tenebaum and Richie. One of Anderson's strengths has always been the subtle building of connections, through either a glance or a snippet of dialogue that cuts unexpectedly deep. But in Grand Budapest, they're so subtle as to be nonexistent.
Also, the laughs just weren't there. Not belly laughs or even light guffaws, but a general sense of enjoyment towards everything happening on screen. What I love about The Life Aquatic is how eminently quotable and precise every snippet of dialogue is. Every character is so fully realized through his words; it becomes less of an actor reading lines and more of a world fully embodied by these people and their quirky witticisms. Grand Budapest is lacking that key variable; for the first time, I found myself thinking that the best lines were in the trailer. Nothing was forced, but nothing quite hit home.
Yet it's hard for me to go too far without feeling nitpicky. There is a lot to like in Grand Budapest, far more than in his biggest clunker (Darjeeling). Fiennes is terrific, and although Revolori doesn't quite live up to the high standards of Schwartzman's aforementioned Fischer or the Moonrise kids, he more than holds his own. Even Anderson's lesser scripts pop with a vitality that's increasingly undeniable; when all of Hollywood's best and brightest actors line up to accept your two-scene roles, you're doing something right. And it's not like Wes is aiming for accessibility after the success of Moonrise Kingdom; that film's precocious duo are replaced by a middle-aged man who lusts after elderly women and his brown teenage companion. I can't quite figure Anderson out; he's both predictable and enigmatic.
As a fan who is intrigued by his future as a filmmaker, I'm excited. But as a filmgoer who lives in the now, I can't say that Grand Budapest struck me as anything more than a transitional work. He's mixed comedy and drama with such ease before, but the latter was always tucked into the former. With the seriousness now out there in the open, just enough of the little things fall short.