Referring to his early career as a movie critic, Graham Greene once harkened back to the “dead ’30s.” The Grand Budapest Hotel begins, seemingly, in the present day, with a girl bringing her copy of a book of the same name to a memorial in a cemetery; we then flash back to 1985, when Tom Wilkinson is publishing the book; then to 1968 when his younger self (Jude Law) is interviewing his source, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), at the hotel of the same name; and then, finally, to the story Zero is telling, about his mentor, the hotel’s concierge, M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), which takes place in 1932. It’s like an open-casket service for a nesting doll. Wes Anderson’s framing device is, perhaps, the film’s most ambitious gambit; I think he’s trying to indicate how heroic myths get corrupted: how time stretches tales like taffy, grows them good and tall. It’s a clever idea, for which a callback gets teased in at the end. But each leg of the trip down memory lane is done up in Anderson’s familiar style—with each nested corpse wearing the same mortuary makeup—so the point is lost: dead as the Nazi-killed ’30s.
Style might be for Wes Anderson what a weight quota is for an anorexic. It no longer seems to express him or his material so much as his “personal brand,” and it’s about as blunt a force for getting laughs as an applause sign. I suppose it is a matter of taste whether one finds a claymation ski chase funny simply because it’s just so Wes, but that falls into the ongoing love-him-or-hate-him nonargument about his work that presupposes that whether one likes his films or not, their consistency of style and intentionality of design make them beyond reproach; he gets auteur points for directing movies that look as diverse as franchises of a restaurant chain. And while I think it is wonderful for an artist to have a vision, a vision should never be an end in itself, which, I fear, Anderson’s is too widely accepted for being. Hotel is not a bad film—it’s doughty, and chipper, and totally insignificant.
To prove I’m not committing that basest sin of Internet conformity—being a hater—I’ll admit that, in retrospect, Moonrise Kingdom was a better film than I painted it to be, though Anderson’s aloof, egg-shell-walk detachment both enriched and impeded his subject matter. Apart from being a breeding ground for deadpan, his style instilled the sense of childhood as a beautiful straightjacket. Like Hotel, Moonrise was set in a calm before the storm—on a fictionalized Cape Cod in 1965—and one got the feeling that the alienation of the ~14-year-old protagonists would lose its innocence as they got closer to adulthood, that it was caught in Andersoninan cuteness like a fly in amber. This incipient fear suffused the performances of the authority figures who wanted to be the children’s protectors. Youthful rebellion and the security of childhood were contained—trapped—within a pantomime of storybook idyll which was ideally represented by Anderson’s style; from it flowed the pain and promise of growing up, and from the contrasting perspectives poured a melancholy that tended to justify the precious, cautious overcontrol.