Wes Anderson has always been a bit of a mystery to me. His films are remarkably consistent in their approach and stylistic idiosyncrasies, yet they seem equally capable of leaving me rapturous (“Moonrise Kingdom”) or cold (“The Darjeeling Limited”). I’m not alone here: Check out any fan’s list of Anderson films from best to worst, and opinions differ every time.
Anderson has been on a roll lately. His last two films, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” both made my Top 10 lists, and I was eagerly anticipating “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Having seen it, though, I’d have to say that Anderson is at that point in his career where he needs to throw the cards in the air and start over. Instead, he merely cuts the deck and we’re dealt an almost identical hand.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” set in the fictional Eastern European republic of Zubrowka, features Jude Law as an author who, in a voiceover, tells us how he came upon the material for his novel, which is also called “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” In 1968 he met a mysterious elderly occupant of the hotel, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who turned out to have been the lobby boy at the hotel in the 1930s. (Moustafa’s younger self is played by Tony Revolori.) Moustafa, in turn, tells the author about the hotel’s heyday and his boss, the suave concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and their adventures together involving wealthy widows, stolen artworks, fascist goons and even a prison break.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” certainly has the vibe of an Anderson film: perfectly deadpan (except when it’s melancholic), full of slow tracking shots and with such elaborate art direction and shot selection that you could choose just about any single frame of the film and hang it on a wall.
Something just feels off, though. As a comedy, it never gets as zany or absurdly silly as “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” nor is it ever as heartfelt and touching as “Moonrise Kingdom.” This is one that falls more in line with the view of Anderson’s detractors — that he’s all style, no substance. Even fans may feel a sense of deja vu. There’s a similar cliffhanger to the one used in the lighthouse climax from “Moonrise Kingdown”; a sewer-system escape that recalls “Mr. Fox”; the book-within-the-movie concept from “The Royal Tenenbaums”; and, of course, the flawed mentor/protege relationship that was used in “Rushmore,” “The Life Aquatic” and arguably just about everything Anderson has done.
This could be forgiven if the film connected, but it all revolves around Fiennes, and despite being a very talented actor who has covered a vast range of roles over the years, his Achilles’ heel is surely comedy (e.g., “Maid in Manhattan”). The film hinges on Fiennes making us laugh, but his ’30s-style, plummy, motor-mouthed, overly erudite and poetry-laden monologues — where the punch line is often simply a detour into expletives — induces more snores than snickers.