If you were to survey people who pay attention to movies -- to go door-to-door with a clipboard, a sharpened No. 2 pencil, and a sheaf of forms with the word SURVEY printed in clean block letters across the top, later to be tabulated on a vintage Underwood adding machine -- you might find that the number who want to love Wes Anderson's work is greater than the number of those who actually do. Unlike so many movies today, all of Anderson's, including his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, feel touched by human hands. His ascent in pop culture has coincided roughly with the renewed popularity of hand-knitting as a hobby; like a grandma-made sweater, Anderson's pictures are put together stitch by meticulous stitch; they're all knobbly with love.
When we're feeling blockbuster-superheroed out, a Wes Anderson movie promises something that's less and yet more: a retreat into a world of phonographs and nearly worn-out Stones LPs, a place where people dress for dinner, a house or a boat or a fox warren where everyone has a job to do and some feelings to feel. If you feel stressed out by the impersonal nature of modern life, Anderson is, in theory, the easiest filmmaker in the world to love.
So why can't I, a person who loves many of the same things Anderson loves, love Wes Anderson? To be even more specific, why do I love only the stop-motion animation marvel Fantastic Mr. Fox, commonly known as "the Wes Anderson movie for people who hate Wes Anderson movies"? Anderson makes some moviegoers swoon and others groan; discounting the Venn diagram center of Fantastic Mr. Fox, there's no wishy-washy in-between. And that in itself makes him fascinating: Wrestling with what you don't love in a filmmaker can be more illuminating than singing the praises of one you do.
I find it easy enough to accept the heartfelt nature of Anderson's 2012 Moonrise Kingdom, in which two little New Englandy misfits, a boy and a girl, run away together and stage their own version (sans sex) of The Blue Lagoon: The bigger world, the world of grownups, can't understand them, but maybe nature can. Why not pack up the old Thermos bottle and escape, hand in hand? Anderson does seem to work from the heart. Several of his films are set in motion by an irrevocable loss: In both Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited, a parent has died, and a child -- or a trio of children -- just can't get over it. Even when loss isn't a grand motivating factor in Anderson land, it can still be a shadowy, potent force: Ben Stiller's surly financier in The Royal Tenenbaums has lost his wife and doesn't know how to grieve. In The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Bill Murray's Jacques Cousteau–like sea explorer has lost his best friend and colleague (Seymour Cassel), and vows revenge on the shark that killed him. As overly precious as his movies may be, Anderson is hardly blind to overwhelming human emotions. Grief freezes us, and to live, we've got to crack through that numbness.
Anderson's latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, deals with loss in a more general, overarching way. The movie opens in the present, as an elderly writer (Tom Wilkinson) reflects on his youth, recalling his 1968 stay at a once-glorious hotel located in the fictional Central European Republic of Zubrowka ("once the seat of an empire," a title card tells us). The younger version of that writer, played by Jude Law, meets a mysterious hotel guest (or might he be the owner?) played by F. Murray Abraham, who regales him with stories of the hotel's prewar glory days. Before the fascist forces of evil rose to power and ruined everything -- Anderson's faux Nazis are paranoia-inducing thugs whose symbol is a double-zigzag instead of a swastika -- life at the hotel was filled with glamour, excitement, and good manners, all personified by its suave concierge and in-house gigolo, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). This genteel but exciting world was too good to last, and its great symbol, The Grand Budapest Hotel, has also fallen into a state of careworn shabbiness dusted with nostalgia.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most elegiac of all Anderson's movies, and the most exquisitely detailed -- this is a world of filigreed archways and medallion-patterned carpets, of train compartments paneled in rich woods and little cakes iced with the colors of springtime. Technically, the movie is probably the crowning achievement in Anderson's HO-scale world, a mass of painstaking details that whisper a sigh of sadness for the loss of the old ways.
But can you mourn a lost world if you can't even breathe? Some people may feel cozy and coddled while they're watching a Wes Anderson movie, but I always feel that I've entered the airless interior of a panorama egg, and someone has closed the latch from the outside. That's especially true of The Grand Budapest Hotel, its visual splendor notwithstanding. One of the chief characters, a junior hotel employee played by a young actor named Tony Revolori, wears a cap embroidered with the words "LOBBY BOY" in slightly wonky letters. It's the slight wobbliness of the stitching that's so annoying, a homespun touch that was clearly intentional, an adorable little curlicue of self-conscious Andersonian quaintness. That character's love interest, a baker played by Saoirse Ronan, bears a birthmark in the shape of Mexico on her cheek. There's no hidden meaning there -- that purplish splotch is just a cute, random shape, a bit of whimsy designed to make us say, "Aha!" or perhaps "Oho!" Anderson fans may find that degree of calculation delightful. The rest of us are left whacking our palms against our foreheads, wondering how on Earth he gets away with it.