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Director Wes Anderson has a style all his own. If you know it (from films like Moonrise Kingdom and The Darjeeling Limited), and if you like it, you will be happy to see The Grand Budapest Hotel. But for this former Wes Anderson skeptic, it’s not his strongest work.

Whiplash Storytelling

Zero and Gustav take care of the guests
Zero and Gustav take care of the guests

The inner flashback (there are many) centers on M. Gustav (Ralph Fiennes) as the manager of the Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s not actually in Budapest, nor even Hungary, but rather in the fictional (and vaguely central/eastern European) country of Zubrowka.

M. Gustav’s youngest employee and newest hire is Zero (Tony Revolori), the new Lobby Boy. The tortuous plot is full of details that I won’t get right. But essentially, Gustav paid extra special attention (wink, wink) to his older, richer, female guests. One of them, the dowager countess Madame D. (a well disguised Tilda Swinton), dies. When Gustav hears news of her death he leaves for her funeral, with Zero in tow.

At the house of the deceased, Gustav learns that he has inherited much from the countess, including the painting Boy with Apple, a valuable masterpiece. Before the affairs can be settled, Gustav and Zero are warned by a servant, Serge (Mathieu Amalric), who sends Gustav and Zero away before the enraged family (especially son Dmitri, played by Adrien Brody) can get their hands on them.

Gustav and Zero soon learn that they have been accused of murdering Madame D. They are captured. A later part of the film involves their eventual jailbreak, assisted by a time-warped Harvey Keitel playing a too-modern tough guy who speaks with pectoral twitches.

The middle flashback involves a writer, Jude Law, getting this story from an older Zero (now F. Murray Abraham) in the lonely, empty, 1968 version of the Hotel. The almost-outermost story features an older version of Jude Law (Tom Wilkinson) telling the story to a camera for posterity. (And one last why-not layer shows a girl reading the book that Wilkinson apparently wrote.)

Style over Substance

I had my Wes Anderson breakthrough while watching Moonrise Kingdom. Before then, the Anderson style always felt forced to me. Eventually, I learned to take it all in — the use of models, the primary colors, and the planimetric (perpendicular) framing — and just enjoy it for what it is. This is Anderson’s next film after Moonrise Kingdom and I admit I let my expectations rise.

Unfortunately, The Grand Budapest Hotel seems like a step backward for me. The Andersonian style hasn’t changed, and there is plenty of it, but it seems like there is less substance in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Part of the artificial style extends to the storytelling, which getting dragged from one development to another, from one generation to another. Before you understand who is who, the next development pops up and we’re off to the neighboring country for a completely different plot.

Lacking a more stable center (like the budding relationship in Moonrise Kingdom), it’s harder to care about the proceedings. Once you realize The Grand Budapest Hotel is going to be a whirlwind, rather than let yourself get emotionally involved, you skim the surface and trust that by the end you’ll have understood where you’ve gone.

Others who have liked Anderson’s work for longer than I have praised the genuine emotion under all of the artifice. I can’t say I always picked up on that, and I do think it’s missing from The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Dark Side

On the way to Madame D.’s funeral, Gustav and Zero are stopped at the border by a mobilized army, led by a commander named Henckels (Edward Norton), who is caught between his class (aristocratic, of course) and his country. This leads to one of the movie’s more awkward encumbrances. Zubrowka may be fictional, but Europe isn’t. Henckels is not necessarily German or Austrian, and his officers don’t necessarily become Nazis, but they might as well. When things turn sour in fictional Grand Budapest Europe, there is no Nazi S.S., but there is a division of black-clad, lightning-bolt-emblazoned “Z.Z.” soldiers. I suppose that’s more palatable in a quirky drama than real swastikas and S.S. men. Anderson treads lightly here, but he might have been better off not treading at all.

Anderson also includes an on-screen killing of a prison guard in an otherwise cartoonish escape. I think I was expected to feel torn about laughing at the stabbing death of someone, but cartoon wasn’t actually funny, it was just stylized. Instead, I felt torn about not laughing at what was supposed to be a cinematically awkward moment that instead fell flat. Better for Anderson to have done it all off-screen or steered clear of this kind of violence altogether.

Still, I am glad I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel. I enjoyed the whirlwind, and it is so densely packed that it could easily stand up to multiple viewings. I don’t think it’s as strong as Moonrise Kingdom, where I’m certain there was a genuine emotional core, but I’m not really put off at all. I will happily see anything Anderson makes in the future, and I’m still convinced that a retrospective of all of Anderson’s work, in sequence, would be a rewarding experience.