It’s been years since Wes Anderson transcended the cult status of his earlier films. Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998) offered a highly stylized, if not completely unreal, suggestion of what was to come. Anderson’s first foray into the realm of high style, and a break from any tangible means of reconciliation with our own reality, occurred with the masterful choreographed and acted The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). The Royal Tenenbaums took as its structure the novel, and would plant the costumes, design, and Whit Stillman-esque dialogue of the film firmly behind the guise of the novel’s artifice. In Anderson’s follow up picture (co-written by Noah Baumbach), The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004), the highly stylized nature of the film was again made an aesthetic necessity because of the nature of the film’s satire; a campy parody of the wildlife documentarians of the 1970s.
Anderson’s subsequent films pursue the kind of “trademark” style that was first suggested in Rushmore, but without the aesthetic justification of these earlier films. That is to say that highly artificial or stylized films aren’t necessarily without worth, just that their style must be motivated either aesthetically or out of narrative necessity. Anderson runs into trouble because he has constructed a singularly codified means of cinematic expression that relies heavily on the fact that the audiences who saw Rushmore or Bottle Rocket have indeed returned to see more of the same and that the number of these devotees has grown.
The fans of these films are not making matters any easier. Their devotion to Anderson and his “trademark” style have become a means of determining the worth of those with whom they interact. Their use of Anderson’s films as a sociological acid test inhibits the growth of the films themselves it would seem; requiring that Anderson continue to make more of the same. Sadly, it is only recently that critics have begun to cite this problem with Anderson’s films; he is indeed just making more of the same.
Consider for a moment The Grand Budapest Hotel (2013). This film, like The Royal Tenenbaums, relies on a literary structure [albeit in the form of a memoir of a confession that deliberately references Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984)] and therefore in turn upon a voice-over narration that makes any meaningful character development redundant. What I mean is that the narration provides the viewer with the kinds of character details that another filmmaker would imbue into the scenes and performances, thus making anything short of simple caricature negligible.
Anderson goes further, codifying these caricatures by casting performers who he has worked with before in roles that are painfully similar to their roles in his previous films, relegating such actors as Bill Murray, Willem Defoe, Jason Schwartzman, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, etc., to be nothing more than basic signifiers. And what they signify is an archetype indigenous to Anderson’s prior films, thus making it a necessity to enjoy the film that one be as familiar with the director’s previous works as possible.
In terms of narrative convention, The Grand Budapest Hotel barrows heavily elements from such classic post-WWII European thrillers as Ten Little Indians (1965), and the numerous film adaptations of the works of Graham Greene. Anderson seems disinterested in analyzing the devices and conventions of this pseudo-sub genre, preferring to employ them to further codify his film with familiar narrative arcs.
This leaves only one redeemable quality of The Grand Budapest Hotel; style. But it is style for style’s sake. There is no significant expression or idea behind the film other than to push a familiar style to new limits. Which, if one ignores the inherent ramifications of such an errand, becomes an effort of very little merit and almost no possible effect.