Dolls in a Dollhouse: Wes Anderson puts up his most cartoonish characters in Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was released the first week of March, showed up in Iowa City in late April and is remarkably still showing twice daily at Sycamore Cinema (though it won’t be hanging on for much longer).

The film may be the terminal point of a long slide from the naturalistic to the utterly cartoonish in Anderson’s oeuvre: in a good way, I think. By ‘cartoonish’ I mean broadly outlined characters and exaggerated, dire happenings. There’s no modern filmmaker who has a style as recognizable as Anderson’s — except for maybe the Coen brothers — and that style keeps audiences coming back.

Grand Budapest Hotel employs the most post-modern gimmick: the frame tale. The beginning shows The Author (played by Tom Wilkinson) telling the story of staying at the Grand Budapest, where he, as a younger man (Jude Law) is told a tale by the owner of the hotel, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). That nested frame contains a painting — in gilded frame — as it’s MacGuffin. And the frame of the movie screen contains all. Undergraduate film students everywhere thank Anderson for this self-conscious artifice.

But that’s really just a layer of Anderson’s arch humor that’s beside the point of the central tale. I rather think Anderson could make a straightforward film that’s more emotionally engaging, and you can tell he’s most emotionally engaged telling the tale of young love: Moonrise Kingdom may be the most genuinely romantic movie I’ve seen in a long time. But the central love story in Grand Budapest Hotel is so deadpan and detached, it’s as though it is being told by someone manipulating dolls in a doll house.

Abraham is great, for the little we get to see of him. I think that if there were more of him acting instead of narrating, he could have given Grand Budapest Hotel some much-needed warmth. But Anderson has achieved his ultimate act of actor attenuation: He puts Abraham — one of the greatest living Americans actors — in a chair and made him sit there through the whole movie.

Anderson allows Ralph Fiennes, however, to be amazing. His character, the concierge of the Grand Budapest, is a cad and a con artist, but at the same time greatly sympathetic. He preys on women of a certain age by being perfectly, sincerely romantic with each of them in turn. He’s a throwback character, a homage to the lovable con man from 1930s movies, but he looks and plays the part so well. Anderson allows him a soul such characters are usually denied.

Grand Budapest Hotel
Ralph Fiennes stars as the romantic concierge in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel.

And about ‘manipulating dolls in a doll house’ — there’s so much model building and matte painting in this movie that the doll house feel is central to the movie. That’s kind of the point, but I feel like there’s a story that’s a lot more intense and heartfelt here that is blocked by Anderson’s stylization. Between the doll-house decor and the purposely low-affect acting, it’s like watching a love story through a painted scrim.

I’d still recommend Grand Budapest Hotel and see it again, but I wanted more from this movie than it gave me, even though it gave me a lot. Is that greedy? It’s hard to decide. Would Wes Anderson be a better filmmaker if he toned down his stylistic quirks, and addressed the themes of his movies in a more naturalistic manner? This film received positive reviews from nearly every film critic: Perhaps it succeeds so well as mannered artifice that it wins them over. But sometimes Anderson seems like that guy in your office who is incapable of interacting without making a joke out of everything. Calm down Wes, we’re with you. Tell us a story without so much funny business.

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