I feel like I talk about Kubrick too much in these reviews, but it makes sense to bring him up in the context of a hotel movie because The Shining is the granddaddy of all hotel movies, the same way that 2001 is the granddaddy of all space movies.
Stanley Kubrick was often accused of treating his movies like dollhouses: all of the shots were too composed, too symetrical, and so many of the performances were intentionally wooden, and there was an intellectual distance from his characters that people found off putting. But despite that his movies were still compelling for two reasons: One is that underneath all of the artifice you could sense that he was trying to get at something deeper, and that quest had enough merit to justify the stylistic quirks. The second part is that he could use that artifice to great ends - the fact that the Overlook Hotel seems so unreal and is part of what makes the Shining so scary; the stifling perfection of the rooms makes it feel distant and unwelcome, setting up a tense mood long before the chaos truly unfolds, and then once the chaos does unfold the way that the grounds seem to exist in an impossible lay out gives the chase scenes a certain nightmare logic.
Wes Anderson has a similar dollhouse vibe in his movies. The difference, however, is that you can’t really say that either of those two points apply to Wes Anderson. There are a few minutes in this movie where the main character refers off handedly to the encroach of World War Two off screen, and for a second there’s a fleeting glimpse of real life happening just out of sight, but then it goes back to it’s impractical antics from impossible characters. There’s no sense that there’s some quest for something deeper.
Still, since the Grand Budapest Hotel is meant to be a farce I’m not sure that accusation is a serious knock on the film. The second problem - that the artifice does not do anything to make the film more effective - is a deeper attack. Unlike the Shining where there was a small handful of characters, this film is so oversaturated with one dimensional quirky characters stacked on top of similarly quirky characters that it was hard to care about any of them; they were all defined by exactly one trait, making them feel nothing at all like real people.
Also, all of the overly symetrical shots become repetitive because there was no variety in how anything was framed, which is a shame. Had there been some chaos in the mise en scene when the more anarchic characters were on screen it would have felt more alive, and it would have provided a helpful contrast for when the more understated characters were shown in their more muted environments. But no: all the scenes unspooled with the same predictable design like the rooms in a hotel.
It’s a shame, because Anderson is such a singular talent that I want him to make the sort of great movies that you can return to over and over again. But no one is ever going to make a documentary like Room 237 about Anderson, because while you were never quite sure if you had exhausted a Kubrick film for meaning, I definitely got the feeling that this film can be exhausted on the first go round and subsequent viewings would just show more details in the decor.
Winner: The Cat