As much as I loathe Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies (more on him later), his slightly older Texas-born analog Wes Anderson is even worse. That’s Wes with the wine, alongside preening Adrien Brody and talent-free Jason Schwartzman. One of Anderson’s early films, Rushmore, left me so stupefied that I actually felt disoriented when I walked out into the night. The ending— that is, the point at which it stopped— was a relief, but also a surprise. The credit scroll was a welcome sight, needless to say, but why? Why had it ended? Why had it begun? Why had it gone on that long? “What the hell was that?” I asked my companion, a Englishman with film chops. “All I know is, it was frightening,” he said. “Empty, and frightening.” And not comic, though it rather desperately seemed to want to be.
Rushmore was no fluke, and Grand Budapest Hotel is the latest floundering mess to prove it. People I know who like Anderson call him “whimsical,” but whimsy without wit or insight is thin sauce, and Wes Anderson is no Jacques Tati. Anderson is one of a gang of white American male directors, like the Coen Brothers and the Wachowskis, who love and understand cinema technically, but their films are essentially heartless and soulless. “One from the lab,” as Pauline Kael said of Francis Coppola’s One from the Heart. In the hope that Anderson’s work would mature into art, I continued to join the dedicated little coterie of ticket-buyers who saw (in descending order of quality) Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom, Royal Tenenbaums, and the utterly dismal Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which should have ended Anderson’s career. (I guess audiences really will forgive Bill Murray anything.) But Grand Budapest Hotel is the coup de grâce. Henceforth, Andersonville is a no-go zone for me. I will never again pony up the cash or waste the time to see anything by him, or the aforementioned Paul Thomas Anderson, whose career has not gone downhill only because there was no way down from Boogie Nights.
Wes A’s eighth feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel, debuted in time to get Oscar notice, which really pissed me off. Far from being one of the year’s best films, it was among the worst of any that were taken seriously. Yet it earned an impressive 9 nominations (the same as Citizen Kane!) and it won 3 (same as The Godfather!) in categories where it did, I’ll grant, merit consideration, if not the actual award: costumes and production design (where it beat Mr. Turner and Into the Woods), and the musical score by the prolific and brilliant French/ Greek composer, Alexandre Desplat, who actually captured two of the five nominations that year (his other was for The Imitation Game), amid competition that included the even more prolific Hans Zimmer (for Interstellar).
Grand Budapest Hotel touted its strong box-office showing upon its release, but real box-office mojo looks like the list at left: 2014’s blockbusters, some of which are very good movies indeed. Grand Budapest Hotel is not among them. Indeed, the only best-picture Oscar nominee on this list is American Sniper, which grossed $350M, making it the highest grossing film of 2014 in the U.S., something of a rarity for Best Picture winners (though increasingly less rare). If this list were longer, you’d find that GBH is at No. 54, having grossed $59M, or slightly more than Horrible Bosses II. The claim of mojo was a slick bit of P.R. based on strategic marketing. Starting the roll-out with only four theaters allowed the publicity machine to manufacture good press and capitalize on generally favorable reviews (I am a minority voice, no question), and build a notable opening weekend, albeit by a very specialized measure. After 10 days in so few theaters, however, the gross couldn’t crack $5 million. Still, it is Anderson’s most profitable movie to date, and as of Oscar night, it was indeed the highest-grossing film among the nominees. Since then it has been overtaken by American Sniper, of course, and The Imitation Game ($91M), but ultimately, it out-earned the winner, Birdman ($42M), as well as Selma ($52M), and, of course, the mere whisper that was Whiplash ($13M), a movie that is the lowest-grossing best-picture nominee since (I think) 1981, when Atlantic City earned $12.7M (unadjusted).
Before popping the cork for Wes’s $59M triumph, however, let’s bear in mind this frequently made observation: Hollywood appears to consider failure at the box office as grounds for nomination. So GBH’s publicity about its box office mojo worked, getting the attention of a large (for Anderson) audience as well as the Academy. Even when a genre movie is a hit, it has tended to get ignored at awards time. GBH was an art-house flick trying to cross over to the mainstream, but the mainstream has changed, big-time. Nine of the 10 movies listed above rely less on story than they do on computer graphics or, increasingly, star power. Grand Budapest Hotel has minimums of each: no compelling characters, no compelling story. It’s eye candy, like an Easter basket for a spoiled brat.
At the turn of this century, the movie landscape was changing fast. Art-house was a term hardly used anymore. They’re “independent” movies and though they’re getting noticed, they’re still swimming upstream against the industry current. I remember the Oscar broadcast the year Fargo was nominated for Best Picture, 1996. One of the presenters said of the nominees, who are these people? It was the rise of independent filmmakers who were making the kinds of movies Hollywood used to make– live action, story- and character-based. They were admired as personal statements, and they mostly were, but that doesn’t make them good, it just makes them personal. Were they really better than Hollywood products from that year– Courage Under Fire (20th Century Fox), Fly Away Home or Get on the Bus (Columbia Pictures), Jerry Maguire (TriStar), or best of all, I thought, Lone Star (Sony Classics). As good? Okay. Categorically better? No.
As late as 1999, half of the 10 top-grossing films were still entirely live action (The Sixth Sense, Austin Powers, Big Daddy, Runaway Bride, Blair Witch), while the other half relied heavily on technology (Star Wars: Phantom Menace, Toy Story 2, The Matrix, Tarzan, The Mummy). The century mark is a convenient one, marking a real change in the cinematic landscape. Narrative films emerged in the early 1900s, notably with America’s 12-minute The Great Train Robbery in 1903, and what is regarded as the first full-length feature movie, Australia’s hour-plus The Story of Ned Kelly in 1906. Both fit neatly into the genre of Westerns– a genre like most others in that, as far back as the first Oscars, in 1927/28, they tended to be ignored in favor of films regarded as more artistic and mainstream. That inaugural year, for instance, no recognition was given to either (1) Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece, Metropolis, which was the 13th top-grossing film in the U.S., or (2) the great Lon Chaney in his role as the circus freak Alonzo the Armless in Tod Browning’s silent horror film, The Unknown. To be fair, of course, the first Oscars were barely codified. There were only 36 Academy members, only 12 categories for awards, no nominees (the term “honorable mention” was used), and the winners were announced months in advance of the ceremony.
Fast forward to the turn of this century, which is witnessing a game-changing emergence of genre films– particularly science fiction and fantasy– into the mainstream. About time, too, because it was a slow transition. Just consider a few from the decades of sci-fi movies with no major nominations: Frankenstein, Dracula, King Kong, Godzilla, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet, The Time Machine, Fahrenheit 451, 2001: A Space Odyssey. When a genre nomination came at last, in 1971, it wasn’t really science fiction, just futuristic: A Clockwork Orange. After Kubrick broke that barrier, nominations came to Star Wars in 1977 and E.T. in 1982 (the year that the Academy ignored Blade Runner, Poltergeist, The Thing, Tron, and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan). Recognition for genre films was picking up the pace because the technology for computer-generated imagery (CGI) was racing ahead.
The 21st century should, therefore, be treated separately when it comes to judging the Academy because sci-fi is only now really being accepted as mainstream. A big breakthrough came in 2009 when two sci-fi movies were nominated for best picture, District 9 and Avatar (they lost to Hurt Locker). But the turning point was in 2003 when Lord of the Rings: Return of the King won that award. The competition should have, but did not, include Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean (though Depp got a nod). What did it beat? Not much: Master and Commander, Seabiscuit, Mystic River, and Lost in Translation. In the next six years, many more skillfully done genre movies would be ignored, including Hellboy, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azbakan, Pirates: Dead Man’s Chest, Children of Men, Iron Man, and Wall-E, among others.
In 2010, the number of nominees for Best Pictures increased from five to as many as 10, making room for genre pictures. Yet, still, when award time rolls around, action-packed blockbusters tend to be dismissed (as, of course, do small-budget genre movies, but that’s for another day.) In 2015 there were eight nominees, including two sci-fi pictures, both worthy. But what were the chances either The Martian (No. 8 in box office in 2015) or Mad Max: Fury Road (No. 20) would win? They both took home awards, but not for Best Picture.
Before the awards, oddsmakers put both films in the middle of the pack, along with The Big Short. The two odds-on favorites were Spotlight (which won) and The Revenant, and the long shots were Brooklyn, Room, and Bridge of Spies. So maybe the industry is finally starting to notice that popular films can also be well-conceived, -written, and -made. But when will they recognize the acting categories (not to mention writing, which is too big a subject to add here)? Heath Ledger’s Oscar-turn as the Joker was an exception– unique, I believe. I know of no other cartoon, fantasy, or sci-fi character that generated an Oscar for the performer, and I think they missed a spectacular one in 2012, 2013, and 2014: Martin Freeman as a Hobbit.
Okay, I know that Freeman’s Bilbo did not surpass Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking, but he was certainly better in 2014 than Steve Carrell, who was nominated for Best Actor for Foxcatcher, in which he was all posture and prosthetics. Maybe the top award, Best Actor (or Actress) is too much to hope for when performers are playing action heroes. But the list of actors who have been ignored for supporting work is long indeed, and it would start, in my view, with an actor’s actor: until he won for shape-shifting into Winston Churchill, Gary Oldman had only ever received one Oscar nod, in 2012 for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Meanwhile, his work in the action genre includes bravura performances in both the Batman franchise and the Robocop reboot, and as far back as 1997 when he commandeered both Air Force One and The Fifth Element.
But one of the earliest, and almost certainly the most egregious overlooked performance dates to the summer of 1975, when Robert Shaw scratched his fingernails across a blackboard and assumed control of Jaws. He sucked the doors off the other nominees that year, good as several of them were: Burgess Meredith for Day of the Locust, Brad Dourif for Cuckoo’s Nest, Chris Sarandon for Dog Day Afternoon, Jack Warden for Shampoo, and — in a sheer display of Hollywood sentimentality– the winner, George Burns, who wasn’t even the best supporting actor in the movie he won for, Sunshine Boys (that would have been F. Murray Abraham).
Oldman and Shaw are only the beginning. Just consider the talent in the ensemble cast (all supporting actors, in other words) of The Avengers, starting with Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. Ruffalo is nominated this year, for his supporting role in Spotlight (another ensemble film), and he’s fine in it, but he’s the definitive Hulk, tightly embodying the hard-won, oft-lost grip of self-control over smoldering rage. But Avengers: Age of Ultron did not receive a single nomination. Also ignored, therefore, were Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, and Clark Gregg, not to mention Joss Whedon and anyone behind the scenes. They’re in fine company this year, with fellow ignoree Jeff Daniels, who did nomination-worthy work in The Martian (as he did in Looper). So do Michael Peña in Ant-Man and Hugh Laurie in Tomorrow-Land.
Not one woman named yet, did you notice? And there probably won’t be, merely because women are vastly outnumbered in blockbusters, especially in lead roles. Even going back ten years, and sticking to supporting roles, I couldn’t find an actress’s performance that ranked with the likes of Tom Wilkinson and Gary Oldman in Batman Begins, Bill Nighy as Davy Jones, or Lawrence Fishburne in Assault in Precinct 13 (yet Matt Dillon– Matt Dillon!– was nominated that year). The year Lou Gosset Jr won, Rutger Hauer was ignored for Blade Runner and Jack Nicholson for Batman. The year Albert Brooks was nominated, Kurtwood Smith and Miguel Ferrer were in Robocop. Ignored, too were Steven Berkoff and Jonathan Banks in Beverly Hills Cop, Shaun Toub and Faran Tahir for Iron Man, Peter Cushing in Star Wars, Joseph Wiseman for Dr. No, Alan Rickman for Die Hard, Willem Dafoe for Spider-Man, Jeff Goldblum for Jurassic Park, Karl Urban and Simon Pegg for either or both Star Treks, and finally, Bruce Willis for Looper. Frankly, though, I think Willis deserved a Best Actor nod for Hart’s War, which isn’t action genre, so it’s irrelevant here, but Willis has never been nominated and it pisses me off. And he was certainly better than Nicholas Cage in Adaptation that year.
Hollywood prefers to present itself as high-minded– their definition of high-minded. Grand Budapest Hotel is anything but high-minded. It is all technique, and even that seems to rely more on television sketch comedy than on the full vocabulary of cinema. It’s all style, zero substance. Zero. To borrow from Macbeth— a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.
The word “zero” came up a lot as I watched the Grand Budapest Hotel in the theater, fidgeting in my seat but at no point inclined to awaken the gentleman who was snoring behind me. One of the main characters is actually called Zero, another of Wes A’s attempts to amuse. Or so I assume. In lieu of any other conceivable purpose, such self-consciously quirky choices must be intended as a comedy, however mirthless, no? It’s hard to say with Wes A. He also delivers one of his rare female characters as Zero’s love interest. Played by the engaging young Irish-American actress Saorise (rhymes with inertia) Ronan, Agatha is a pastry chef whose airy, sugary concoctions signal her relative slightness, and also serve as a handy metaphor for the film itself: these are empty calories.
The movie clearly had a budget (23 million euros, or about $30M), it has a big cast, so one would think that it developed from a big idea. It’s set in Central Europe during the rise of the Third Reich… ish. It’s all fictionalized and bowdlerized and generally caponized. Instead of the swastika, we get two stylized Z’s, like lightning. But while the visuals are painstakingly created, the screenplay has zero fresh ideas, or serious ones, or even comic ones. It’s a kaleidoscope, with no more change of pace or tone than that toy has.
The story is framed across time and generations—story-within-a-story telling, an honorable old technique, but one that seems quite wasted here. Tom Wilkinson begins and ends the film as an aged author. We flash back to Jude Law as his younger self interviewing F. Murray Abraham. From there we flash further back to F. Murray in his youth. Played by an actor with zero charisma, Tony Revolori, he is Zero, the Lobby Boy in the Grand Budapest Hotel. Actually an alpine spa, it is under the control of a concierge, M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes with a futile dedication to the role. The bulk of the action takes place in that deep flashback, though the timeline is further toyed with through random subtitles, yet again meant to be amusing (I guess), which state the year or “One week earlier” or “Two months later” or whatever. None of it hangs together, and perhaps it wasn’t meant to. But, again yes again, I don’t know what it was meant to do.
Every scene strikes the same note. There’s some visual wit, but almost no verbal wit. The characters are mannered and empty of interest. And the sprawl of actors doesn’t help, it only makes the whole movie feel more tedious. Mysteriously admired as a director, Wes Anderson uses an inner circle of players and often chooses to feature ones who aren’t even actors, such the expressionless Jason Schwartzman, in lead roles. Actors who really need direction, e.g. Edward Norton and Adrien Brody, languish in Anderson’s hands. Many of the marquee names show up as little more than cameos, some with less than a minute’s screen time: Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton (who is marvelous), Tom Wilkinson, Fisher Stevens. Not all household names, but treated as a series of inside jokes for the audience to recognize. Look! There’s Harvey!
As for content: another zero. If Anderson is aware of what Central Europe was like as Hitler rose to power, he shows no indication of it beyond the trappings— costumes, set design, both of which are very good, as is the music. Indeed, Alexandre Desplat’s music provides the only feeling the movie has. The Grand Budapest Hotel is superficial to from the first frame to the last— and an insult to Stefan Zweig. If you see it, watch for the faux Egon Schiele painting, “Two Lesbians Masturbating,” and ask yourself, why? Why that subject? That painter? Anderson combines frivolity and pretension in a way I didn’t think possible in human nature. And shows no sign of stopping, or of growth. Budgets growing? Yes. Artist? No.