There is a shot in the first reel of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel that will feel awfully familiar to devotees of the Anderson canon. Hotel concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) walks down a long hallway off the lobby of the film’s titular hotel, and as he does, we see that his job, of which he speaks with grandeur and profundity, is really comprised of a million little decisions. As the camera tracks with him, he signs off on a dining room item, checks in on a regular guest, and writes notes to be handed off to his flunkies, all in a matter of seconds. The shot feels familiar for a couple of reasons. It is clearly intended as an homage to Truffaut’s famous “What is a director” sequence from Day for Night, but it also calls to mind Anderson’s American Express commercial that paid homage to Truffaut.
The comparison is instructive: Anderson sees Gustave as a director of sorts, which makes him a handy surrogate. But you could say the same of almost all Anderson’s protagonists. With few exceptions, each of his central characters approaches life with the soul of a director, equal parts passion and careful execution. When presented with a problem, they craft a creative and complex plan and then carry it out with gusto. Which of Anderson’s characters does this description apply to?
Let’s count them down in reverse order: Sam from Moonrise Kingdom, Mr. Fox from The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Francis from The Darjeeling Limited, Steve Zissou from The Life Aquatic, Max Fisher from Rushmore, and Dignan from Bottle Rocket. These men are planners, and only The Royal Tenenbaums features a protagonist who prefers a spontaneous approach to life (although Ben Stiller’s Chas comes close to fitting into the above list). Meanwhile, in two of these cases – Zissou and Fisher – Anderson disposes with pretense altogether and makes them actual directors.
It’s not newsworthy that Anderson would create protagonists so closely related to himself, but it does speak to that one enduring criticism of the otherwise celebrated director: that his work is held back by a certain solipsism. With each passing film, Anderson seems to go deeper and deeper into his own universe, and reality gets pushed further and further to the edges of the screen. The Grand Budapest Hotel, for example, is set in a fictional hotel in a fictional country fighting a fictional war, and every frame of the film looks more like an elegant comic strip than anything resembling reality. His talented and experienced company of actors – Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, and Edward Norton, for example – are nothing more than another set of props to Anderson, wonderful to look at but still inanimate.
Movies, of course, don’t need to be set in a world that precisely mirrors our own for them to be relatable. But reality in some form – whether it’s in the setting or in characters who behave in ways that we understand – must be present. In other words, there must be a way in, a way for us to bridge that divide between the fantasies of the screen and our recognizable realities. Anderson seems increasingly uninterested in building those bridges. When asked in a recent interview what motivates him to create imaginary worlds in his films, his answer was telling: “The real answer is…because I just like to.”
While this might make Anderson seem like an extemporaneous filmmaker – someone who deals exclusively in the present – most of his fans seem to associate his films with the past. His style certainly feels like an homage to a more elegant era, but this deep, systematic narrowing of his cinematic universe reminds me of how we engage with the world through social media. On Facebook, Twitter, and Spotify, we get to experience the world through our own personal filter. Our feeds don’t reflect the universe at large; we only see the people and things that we want to see, and day after day, our worldview gets reinforced not challenged. This ultimately means that we are not living in reality, rather a meticulously-crafted dollhouse of our own making. The “friends” and “followers” in our lives are simply props meant to hold up our own perspective.
And so it is with the Anderson canon. Watching his films, I increasingly feel the dark, lonely side of our social media universe. I feel shut out of a world I can glimpse but can’t find a way into. Wes Anderson may be a brilliant artist with a strong commercial sensibility, but he refuses to push himself to explore new social circles. In other words, he sticks to his news feed, and while he may gain new fans, his imagination gets smaller and smaller.
Like most of his recent works, Budapest is entirely devoid of dramatic tension. We may chuckle along as its wacky events transpire and be impressed with how diligently Anderson pulls the strings, but does it actually matter what happens to Gustave and his lobby boy? When Gustave ends up in prison, for example, do we feel the darkness of his soul? Hardly. Instead, it is just another place for the director and his surrogate to sprinkle their trademark fairy dust.
But it was not always this way with Anderson. Consider Rushmore and its immediate predecessor. When I think about what I loved about Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, it has a lot to do with the relationship between his central characters and the world around them. Both Dignan and Max Fisher like to think of themselves as stars of their very own movies. For Dignan, it is obviously a crime caper; for Max, probably a French New Wave romance. Still, those films are set firmly in recognizable worlds. Everyone around them looks at Dignan and Max like they are a bit crazy, which makes their delusions dramatic and comedic and, ultimately, kind of heartbreaking. The characters are like children, and we are their parents; we know that their delusions would eventually be shattered, and but watching how it happens is what makes their stories compelling.
But despite explosions, murders, jail breaks, and gun fights, The Grand Budapest Hotel is not compelling, and it certainly doesn’t qualify as an artistic step forward. Much like Mr. Fox, Anderson is digging himself further into the ground and creating a new universe for him and his friends to play in. The problem, which he seems to have no interest in fixing, is that there is not a lot of room down there for the rest of us.