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Grand Babushka Hotel

April 16, 2014

In case you haven’t seen it, Wes Anderson’s newest movie is a Wes Anderson movie. Which is to say that it has so many hallmark, camera-winking elements of a Wes Anderson movie that Grand Budapest Hotel is almost a parody of a Wes Anderson movie. You can certainly play a brisk game of Wes Anderson Bingo while watching.

Specifically, Grand Budapest Hotel exhibits many of what are now trademark-Andersonian actors, quirks and nods. Indeed, Anderson’s oeuvre grows like a snowball, picking up bits and pieces (i.e., actors and themes) as the movies themselves accumulate. Of course, Anderson’s filmography is most obviously and notoriously replete with his signature cinematographic style: everything obsessively centered, designed, and stylized.

The camera pans are steady. The set pieces are just that, often more evocative of a staged play than a film. The style is too-often described with the word “twee” by folks seeking an appropriate context with which to use the buzzword, like people who call assign the label “hipster” to anything created outside of the mainstream. A “dollhouse” aesthetic rings more true to me. And that term also seems to strike closer to the heart of the matter.

Then there’s the cast of familiar faces. Andersonia started with Bottle Rocket at its core, with Owen and/or Luke Wilson recurring in just about every Anderson project. Then, Rushmore added the recurring appearances of Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray, along with a slew of bit parts (e.g., Brian Cox, Seymour Cassel, Kumar Pallana, Waris Ahluwalia, et al.) that pepper themselves throughout each Anderson outing, practically a part of the crew. The Royal Tenenbaums brought Anjelica Houston into the fold. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou added Michael Gambon, Jeff Goldblum, and the consistently creepy Willem Dafoe. The Darjeeling Limited saw Adrien Brody work his way into the Andersoniverse, and Moonrise Kingdom brought Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton (along with Bob “I-know-him-but-I-don’t-know-where-from” Balaban) onto the call sheet. Add all the aforementioned together with a new star lead (as per the custom), and you get The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Anderson’s themes also recur more consistently than cocaine in a Scorcese movie. Every single Anderson film, even including Anderson’s adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, can be construed as an exploration of children behaving like adults and adults behaving like children. From Max Fischer’s rivalry with Herman Blume to Ari and Uzi’s corrective upbringing by Royal Tenenbaum to Steve Zissou’s conflict with the real world to the Darjeeling brothers seeking forced enlightenment (contra their mother absconding from their lives entirely) to the obviously too-adult affair of Sam and Suzy in Moonrise Kingdom. The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception. In fact, it is perhaps the capstone of Wes Anderson’s previous layers of construction and foundation.

It would be frivolous to claim that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a culmination for Anderson simply because it incorporates these elements of a Wes Anderson movie, even though it does in spades. Even the nonchalance and even unsubtlety with which these elements are almost shoe-horned into the movie can be fairly described as Andersonian. However, the nested storytelling/framing devices that bracket the core narrative of The Grand Budapest Hotel suggest that there is something significant to the recursive cacophony.

To break it down into its matryoshka-esque storytelling layers, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a (1) film that opens on (2) a present-day girl reading a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel written by “The Author,” who is (3) by portrayed by Tom Wilkinson who explains to the camera how (4) his younger self, played by Jude Law, traveled to the aging Grand Budapest in 1968, only to meet and dine with Zero Moustafa, played by F. Murray Abraham, who in turn relates (5) the story of Gustave H. and the Grand Budapest in the years between World Wars (not to mention (6) the expositional asides by Gustave H. to Zero in explaining his relationships with the various guests of the Grand Budapest), which is the heart of this narrative turducken.

But then, the use of a storyteller as a framing devices is another Anderson trope. Rushmore opens with curtains drawn to reveal the set of this play masquerading as a movie; The Royal Tenenbaums is portrayed as a children’s book narrated by Alec Baldwin; The Life Acquatic with Steve Zissou is titled, framed and shot like one of the titular characters adventure movies, down to the daring rescue and discovery of extraordinary marine life; and Moonrise Kingdom is practically reported by a historian/narrator, as though for a History Channel special on the most interesting story of the small island’s history.

With all of these storytelling layers, the potential for unreliable narrators compounds. The audience considers whether a narrator is lying or embellishing their slice of the story. And the stories are almost always stories created by the person with the most childlike point of view in Anderson’s films. Arguably, Anderson employs this perspective to reinforce the point that it is capacity for wonder and enthusiasm that makes a good story. Those qualities that make the child a sympathetic protagonist are their immunity to irony or ironic detachment. Their enthusiasm makes them fun and engaging.

So even if the unreliable narrators caused us to conclude that the plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel was made up (even within the universe of the film), the audience must also consider in what other way would anyone have access to the glorious and delightful history of a landmark like the Grand Budapest? The audience’s present-day perspective views the hotel as a monument in ruins, without the animated liveliness that serves as a complement and counterpart to Gustave’s brilliant efficiency. Anderson seems to say that only the authentic power of storytelling (in its myriad traditions: film, book, radio, dinner conversation, etc.) can preserve such larger-than-life memories with a genuineness, even if the audience must accept the risk that some of the stories are simply tall tales.

The cute, childlike, and even Wes Anderson-y set pieces and artifice to remind us that “this is a story, don’t take it too seriously.” The fact that the stories come from precocious children seem a clever way to disarm the hip detachment that is the hallmark of adulthood that would normally dismiss an exaggerated fable out of hand before enjoying what it has to offer. Maybe that is for the best. Maybe the defense mechanism has served its purpose. After all, how else do you get a hipster to admit something is just grand?

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