One of the many characters in Wes Anderson’s latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a bakery girl named Agatha. Agatha has an Irish brogue and a birthmark in the shape of Mexico and is played by Saoirse Ronan. She spends her days at Mendl’s Bakery piping pastel-colored icing onto confections and dainties, which are then put into cream-pink boxes tied up with ribbon. Within the world of the film, Mendl’s pastries are understood to be beyond compare. And yet, like Wes Anderson’s films themselves, they’re almost so pretty they’re terrifying, and you get the feeling that they don’t taste nearly as good as they look. The Grand Budapest Hotel is fitted out with all of Anderson’s trademark charms: a cast of lovable eccentrics, effortlessly witty throwaway lines, madcap chases, art direction so lush and detailed you want to live inside it. But if it’s Anderson’s most fully realized film, it’s also one of his most leaden. As Anderson’s films become more “mature” they threaten to become more constrained and less lyrical. They’re killed into style.
What’s frustrating about Anderson’s films is that they’re made by an artist whose brilliance and talent are so clearly apparent that it becomes very easy to overlook his shortcomings—even when those shortcomings have to do with whether or not he’s suited to making films in the first place. The question that Anderson’s work begs is not but is it art? but rather but is it a movie? The Grand Budapest Hotel looks like a movie, but watching it sometimes feels like watching a machine work. Its paradox is that it is crowded with characters and situations that are supposed to be funny and sad and surprising and lovely and richly drawn but aren’t, because they’re never allowed any room to breathe. Anderson is a humanist who is curiously devoid of warmth, something that becomes especially apparent in a film that so consciously draws on the work of such great 1930s filmmakers as Lubitsch and Renoir, arguably the greatest humanist filmmaker who ever lived.
Reviewing his previous film, 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, I suggested that he might be better suited to writing or illustrating the kinds of whimsical and bittersweet children’s stories on which so many of his films are modeled. I’d be curious to see how he would work in other media. What might an Anderson-directed opera be like? An art installation? A picture book? A board game? (The obvious suggestion would be for him to go into interior design.) His visual eye is impeccable, and he’s a capable storyteller. His films are beautifully decorated confections. They come to us wrapped up in gorgeous boxes tied up with ribbon. I have yet to encounter one that tastes as good as it looks.