My father and I once checked into a fleabag hotel in New York, where the many cigarette burns on the carpet crunched when you stepped on them. The room smelled of sweat and coins. There was also a crew of French construction workers who worked right outside our window, where they yelled at one another while dangling from their scaffolding. I ‘ve never forgotten that experience. On the other hand, I’ve never forgotten my stay at the Grand Wailea either, when my buddy Shea and I slid down the water slide and bumped into Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Hotels can be vivid places in movies and Wes Anderson’s latest film portrays the inner workings of a hotel that comes across like a world within worlds. The establishment of the title is simply awesome, the sort of resort that merits five stars for any and all who stay there. The movie itself doesn’t rate as high, if only because this is one of those Anderson films that are visually intoxicating and mostly delightful but lack much heart.
We witness the hotel’s history, as its early days were overseen by a perfectionist concierge named Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). The new lobby boy, named Zero (played well by newcomer Tony Revolori), is intensively mentored by Gustave, who gets the boy into adventures that expand far beyond the perimeters of the mountainous hotel. We meet a wild variety of characters, many of whom appear so animal-like in appearance that they might as well be live-action characters from Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Willem Dafoe, in particular, shows up as a villain, seemingly in the midst of a werewolf transformation. Jeff Goldblum, playing an intellectual and carrying a cat, also sports a wolf-like look and Adrian Brody’s bad guy looks like a villain from some silent, European horror film. The massive cast is fun to spot, as most of the supporting roles are small and decorative. Bill Murray sports a walrus mustache, which is the only thing about his role that left an impression. Fiennes is at the center of this visual feast, though Anderson’s sumptuous vision is clearly the film’s real star.
The best and worst thing about the film is that there isn’t a scene or performance that feels spontaneous. Anderson’s staging of every scene, handling of every actor and directing every precise camera movement is utterly meticulous. This creates a work limited in truly making you care but, taken as what resembles a live-action cartoon unfolding inside a moving pop-up book, it’s a thing of beauty.
Alexandre Desplat’s magnificent score tickles the ear and underscores the sense of wonder and discovery. While not an action movie, several set-pieces have a kinetic energy that reminded me of Bugs Bunny at his looniest. But a crucial love story between Revolori and Saorise Roanan is ice-cold and never draws us in. After Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson strangely fails to evoke warmth. What’s worse is that though the hotel is a marvelous setting, the interest lags when the second act drastically changes location.
While not on the level with Anderson’s masterpieces The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom and Bottle Rocket, it’s still brilliantly orchestrated. The story’s clever bookends and funny, thrilling climactic shootout aren’t just great scenes but great cinema.
Like many of Anderson’s works, the style is so overwhelming that it hijacks the movie and can leave you feeling absent from the feelings of the characters. Thinking back on the film, the look of it dazzled me so much that I forgot Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson were also in it.
Score: *** (1-5 Star Score)