The Grand Budapest Hotel, the latest offering from the writer and director Wes Anderson, is a laborious confection, rather like one of the Mitteleuropa cakes made by one of its characters. It is elaborate and beautiful. It is sweet. It is a work of true artistry. But it is also heavy, and slightly sickening. It may look scrumptious, but it doesn’t go down well. Anderson wants to be an elegant pastry chef, creating gossamer objects of great intricacy that are both delicate and substantial at the same time. In truth, Anderson has the soul of a locksmith, whose inventions are no less ingenious and complex than a pastry chef’s—but are crafted in lead.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a story within a story within a story, which is already two stories too many. It is set in a country called Zubrowka, somewhere in the Alps. A reader sitting in the capital’s central square in the present day is drawn into a great Zubrowkan novel that was written in the 1980s about a memory the novelist had of a visit to the titular hotel in the 1960s. While there, the novelist had been told a story by an elderly gentleman about the hotel’s heyday in 1932. The elderly gentleman had been the hotel’s “lobby boy”—the title on his cap—and protégé of the hotel’s dapper martinet of a manager, M. Gustav H. (brilliantly played by Ralph Fiennes, who has never before shown such delightful liveliness). He runs the Grand Budapest as one imagines the meticulous Wes Anderson runs his sets: with an obsessive eye for detail and color, and an antic disposition bordering on the manic side of bipolar disorder.
The plot zooms along before us like a runner being unrolled across the floor of the Grand Budapest’s lobby. An ancient doyenne of the hotel dies and leaves Gustav H. a great painting. He and the lobby boy are forced by circumstance to steal it, and he is arrested for the doyenne’s murder. The lobby boy and his girlfriend, who makes pastries, help arrange a jailbreak. A secret network of hotel concierges helps them along, even as they are being pursued by the doyenne’s son and his psychopathic hitman. The chase involves motorcycles, railroads, a mountaintop abbey, and a ski race. Meanwhile, the entire country is falling under the dominion of a fascist regime and its storm troopers, whose logo consists of two Zs.
Wes Anderson is the most meticulous filmmaker alive, and his attention to detail leads to inspired shots, set designs, even logos on boxes. It is in these seemingly throwaway details that he shows his boundless wit and cleverness, and they are not to be dismissed lightly. He is doing things on film that no one else is doing. And one of the things he is doing is calling the movie-goer’s attention to the ludicrousness of movie conventions. He does not disguise the way in which plot and dialogue are artifices; he tries to make us laugh at them, to find them amusing.
On stage, this would be called “Brechtian,” after Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright who embraced rather than fought against the unreality of theater. Brecht did this to make a Stalinist case that culture is a weapon of the powerful against the powerless, an effort to hypnotize us out of the social consciousness that would inevitably lead to revolution.
I loathe Brecht, but at least he was up to something. What the hell is The Grand Budapest Hotel about? Beats me. It’s impossible, here and in most of Anderson’s work, to discern just what on earth Anderson is trying to do. He constructs three-dimensional theatrical sets—like the lobby of the Grand Budapest and the house in which much of the action of his last movie, Moonrise Kingdom (2012), takes place—and runs his cast through them as though they are figurines in a diorama. The effect is often amusing, but it’s utterly baffling. He creates distance between the audience and the characters, but there seems to be no underlying purpose, no worldview, nothing he’s trying to tell us.
It’s no wonder his best film is the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), because he dispensed with people entirely and literally used figurines and shoeboxes. They’re cute. They’re animals. And he got a ready-made plot from Roald Dahl.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.