If a movie only needs to look good to be good, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel would be great. No matter what story he tells, Anderson makes every film a visual journey with exaggerated people trying to deal with extraordinary situations. While other filmmakers may explore similar content, Anderson’s unique use of camera and setting gives his films a distinct view that enables him to ground even the most esoteric of topics.

The director’s stylized visuals works best when we get to know the characters his camera captures. His jilting cameras in The Royal Tenenbaums explore how people in a family can hide from each other to prevent authentic connection. The simplistic visual style of Moonrise Kingdom helps us get to know complex people who try to pretend they are what they can’t ever be. The Great Budapest Hotel, by comparison, looks like an epic with its broad showcase of camera, settings and costumes to create a sweeping visual experience. But unlike those earlier films, this time Anderson forgets to reveal enough of what the characters are thinking and feeling to justify the look. While the visual wonders dazzle, we’re left with a movie that looks great but is filled with strangers we never get to know.

Setting his film in the fictional land of Zubrowka, Anderson never pretends to portray real life. We know we are in a fantasy from the opening moments as Tom Wilkinson, playing an author with a book to introduce, explains that writers do not imagine their best stories. Soon we flash back in time to meet a hardboiled owner of a hotel (played by F. Murray Abraham), his eccentric concierge (Ralph Fiennes) and a collection of exaggerated people who fight over a disputed inheritance and stolen art. In the tradition of the classic Grand Hotel from the 1930s — using a hotel setting to symbolize societal pressures and moral decay — Anderson stylizes his fortress to protect the idiosyncrasies of his guests.

The parade of characters continues, including an elderly dowager (the amazing Tilda Swinton) who falls in love with a younger man and dies, her wretched son (Adrian Brody) and a deadly enforcer (Willem Dafoe in a cool black leather coat) as well as, in smaller roles, such Anderson favorites as Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Ed Norton, among others. With such a big cast vying for screen time, however, only Fiennes gets any chance to shade his character. While he gets to celebrate a comic field day — freely using his elastic face and striking voice to make us believe this lunacy could actually occur — the others have little to do other than pose in Anderson’s grand illustration. While their contributions fill the image, we’re left wishing we could get to know them better. Not only would the narrative make more sense, these characters seem like a lot of fun.

While The Great Budapest Hotel looks great, with its stylized settings created in a studio and filmed on location in Germany, the film ultimately misses because it lacks that emotional connection that can give visuals needed context. Because Anderson chooses to exaggerate the style, he should compensate for the artificiality by giving the characters more substance. Such a balance, as in Moonrise Kingdom and The Royal Tenenbaums, would give the visual approach an authentic foundation. Ultimately this film looks ravishing but feels shallow. But Anderson will be back.

 

Film Nutritional Value

The Grand Budapest Hotel

* Content: Medium. While the framework for the story offers a rich opportunity to explore a range of characters, director Wes Anderson prefers to focus on the visuals.

* Entertainment: High. Even though the character development is lacking, Anderson’s ability to create a visually distinct world makes this a dazzling film to watch.

* Message: Medium. Unlike his films that focus on family and relationship, this time around Anderson wants to play with the camera, offering little moral to chew on.

* Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to enjoy an entertaining time at the movies is relevant, although this is not a film for the family.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. An hour after the movie ends, while you may wonder what it is all about, you will remember how it looks.

 

(The Grand Budapest Hotel is rated R for “language, some sexual content and violence.” The film runs 100 minutes.)

3-1/2 Popcorn Buckets