“Isle of Dogs”: Wes Anderson and the Problem of Evil

If Wes Anderson finally discovered evil in The Grand Budapest Hotel, with Isle of Dogs he attempts to bring it to his level. That earlier film’s Mitteleuropean marzipan levity was haunted, and eventually consumed, by the storm of totalitarianism and murder gathering outside its impeccably curtained windows. Genocide was just over the horizon. And in Isle of Dogs, it’s here — at least metaphorically. A splendid jewel box of a movie about rather grisly matters, the filmmaker’s latest represents another example of the clash between his playfully self-aware aesthetic and his growing obsession with our inhumanity.

In the past, Anderson has seemed content to live with this sort of tension — part of the dark charm of his work has always come from his juxtaposing cruelty with frivolity. But this time, he’s also making an animated film for kids, which poses its own challenges. The director’s previous foray into the genre, the 2009 Roald Dahl adaptation The Fantastic Mr. Fox, was a creepy, exciting delight — an occasionally irreverent, ultimately moving tale about responsibility and belonging. It also suggested that Anderson had an animator’s heart; even many filmgoers skeptical of the manicured precision of his live-action work seemed to admire the stop-motion version. The sensibility matched the form, too. Anderson’s films from that period regularly centered on families, dwelling on filial bonds and intimations of mortality. That kind of intimate emotionality was perfectly in keeping with the warmhearted demands of family fare.

But in recent years, a different kind of darkness has begun to creep into his pictures — something broader, more external and uncontainable. The story of Isle takes place twenty years in the future on the fictional Japanese island of Megasaki, where gangsterish, brick-shaped Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by co-writer Kunichi Nomura), the scion of an ancient family of dog-hating noblemen who were vanquished many centuries ago, has decreed that all canines, vulnerable as they are to ailments like “dog flu” and “snout fever,” be relocated to a remote, garbage-strewn atoll called Trash Island.

The tale follows a group of mismatched and exiled pups (voiced by the likes of Bill Murray, Ed Norton, and Jeff Goldblum) as they attempt to aid a young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), who just happens to be Mayor Kobayashi’s orphaned nephew and has crash-landed on the island in search of his beloved hound Spots (Liev Schreiber), the first dog exiled to this wasteland.

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The particulars of their quest aren’t too dramatic, at least at first. Anderson seems more interested in elements that will add dimension to his world: a political campaign back at Megasaki drowning in criminality and corruption, an American exchange student (voiced by Greta Gerwig) who sets out to save Atari and foil Kobayashi’s evil plans, and the dogs’ own recollections of their days back in civilization — reminiscing about their favorite foods and mulling over whether their attachment to humans was a good or bad thing. (A bitter but loyal former street-dog named Chief, voiced by Bryan Cranston, is decidedly anti-human, and his cynicism seems to be bolstered by the humans’ actions toward the dogs.) The situation gains urgency as we learn more about what Kobayashi intends to do. And as the dogs get more desperate the movie actually becomes funnier: Anderson has a sharp grasp of slapstick and visual humor, and he uses deadpan about as well as anybody since the great silent comedians.

But for all the laughs and the social resonance, Anderson and his team have first and foremost conjured a work of spellbinding loveliness. This might be the director’s most visually striking film, with its luminous cityscapes, its forbidding and surreal wastelands, its smoky, shadowy interiors. He has cited Akira Kurosawa as an influence on the picture, the same way that Grand Budapest Hotel was inspired by the work of Stefan Zweig; to that I would also add Yasujiro Ozu and Seijun Suzuki – one an artist of stillness, the other a poet of movement, both masters of color and light.

Even so, Anderson has a tough balance to strike: The humor and levity of a children’s tale about dogs isn’t exactly a natural match for an allegory about genocide. It’s also not the kind of metaphor you want to think about too hard. But that’s partly the nature of fable, isn’t it? To touch on darker, more important themes with a certain evocative vagueness — just enough to capture the imagination without prompting us to nitpick the logic. Anderson wisely keeps his touch light throughout. There are a lot of intensely grisly directions in which this story might have gone, but the film manages to avoid them without trivializing the characters’ predicament. That is perhaps because Anderson needs to conclude things in a way that will adhere to the demands of an animated family film; he can’t leave things open-ended and dire, as he did with The Grand Budapest Hotel. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if older viewers find the film’s finale a bit too quick and tidy. At the same time, I suspect Wes Anderson isn’t quite done with the problem of evil yet.

Isle of Dogs
Directed by Wes Anderson
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Opens March 23


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Wes Anderson Characters Come to Life at Spoke Art’s Bad Dads Party

Wes Anderson fanatics turned up at the seventh annual Bad Dads exhibit at Spoke Art’s new Lower East Side location. The show brings dozens of artists together to create Anderson-inspired artwork. For the opening night party, gallery-goers dressed up as characters from just about every Anderson flick, from The Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Darjeeling Limited to The Life Aquatic to The Royal Tenenbaums. One of the night’s highlights? Actor Jared Gilman — who played Sam in Moonrise Kingdom — came to check out the exhibit. Here are just a few of the memorable looks from the evening.

Photos by C.S. Muncy for the Village Voice



In The Longest Week, Rich Authors Have a Sad

The Longest Week, from writer-director Peter Glanz, is a romantic dramedy that echoes its main characters: beautiful on the outside, bereft of purpose inside. Stylistically, Glanz channels Wes Anderson, from his symmetrical framing to his reliance on voice-over narration. The references are so excessive that the film hints at satire but ultimately fails to rise above mimicry.

Childish would-be novelist Conrad Valmont (Jason Bateman) is the wealthy heir to Valmont Hotels. When he is unexpectedly cut off from his family funds, Conrad moves in with his friend/rival Dylan Tate (Billy Crudup). Along the way, he falls in love with a model, Beatrice Fairbanks (Olivia Wilde), who he later discovers is Dylan’s new girlfriend. It’s a shame that the cast’s considerable charms are steamrolled into dull impersonations of Anderson’s Margot Tenenbaum.

They mainline her flat affectations while abandoning the fragility that made her alluring. There are a few beautifully shot montages where traces of Wilde’s and Bateman’s charisma shine through. Free of the overwrought, Woody Allen-esque dialogue, their attraction is tangible. The moment they speak, however, it seems implausible that they could muster up enough passion for sex, much less love.

The film’s frequent, winking criticisms of Conrad’s books — that they’re poor imitations of better artists’ works or that their characters are feckless and inconsequential — are frustrating, too. They strike so close to this work of art that they make the aggressive tedium seem intentional. Lacking any significant character arc or motivation, The Longest Week is little more than a series of insipid conversations between bored aristocrats who snark at each other in monotone.



Be you a squalling man-child or just an avid Wes Anderson fan, chances are you’ve fantasized about bunkering down in the Museum of Natural History after hours. With dinosaur bones, dioramas, Native American relics, and the Hayden Planetarium, it’s one of few places that can induce seizure-like fits of whimsy in kids and adults alike. Tonight nostalgic Gen Y-ers (is there any other kind?) revel in A Night at the Museum For Grown-Ups, an “adult” version of the popular sleepover normally reserved for wildly overprivileged children. The 21-and-up event includes a three-course dinner, wine and beer, live music and performances, access to all exhibits, guided flashlight tours, a special midnight presentation of the Dark Universe with Neil deGrasse Tyson, and breakfast to round it all off. Guests sleep on cots in the Hall of Ocean Life, beneath the 94-foot-long blue whale and likely as far away from that terrifying giant squid display as they can manage. There’s a puzzling addendum to the museum’s checklist that states “no pajamas allowed,” but guests are encouraged to go to town on sleeping bags, pillows, and change for the vending machines. Sweet dreams.

Fri., Aug. 1, 6:30 p.m., 2014


Re-Enactors Get Their Own Sweet Family Movie with The Discoverers

In his debut feature, Justin Schwarz is clearly drawing from the same bag of tricks as many of his indie comedy predecessors, but he’s refining them. Even his wide, Wes Anderson-ian compositions have a purpose.

Paintings are everywhere in this film about shaping history, setting up a nostalgic framework before the central characters forge out into the semi-unknown.

After the death of his mother, harried academic Lewis (Griffin Dunne) is forced to return home to Idaho with moody teens in tow. They arrive to find that grieving Grandpa Stanley (Stuart Margolin) has begun to take his “rather unhealthy Lewis and Clark obsession” to the next level. And so the disgruntled tribe sets off, period costumes and all, re-enacting the 1804 expedition with a band of history buffs in order to humor the family patriarch. Madeleine Martin demonstrates furtive indie starlet potential as daughter Zoe, speaking in a Daria Morgendorffer–style monotone tinged with more sweetness than snark.

Much of the comedy stems from her weary observations (“Did we just see some white dude in war paint and leather skivvies?”), vegan diet, and droll demeanor throughout one of the more disastrous dad-running-out-for-tampons scenarios ever portrayed on film. In contrast, son Jack (Devon Graye) doesn’t say much at all besides the occasional “cool.” The dysfunction may be perfunctory, but in this gorgeous natural setting — Schwarz makes full use of the stunning woods — it feels like new territory.

The discovering in question involves fathers discovering who their children have grown up to be, and the idea of history, or a clumsy re-enactment of history, is played well as a metaphor for one’s own lineage.


Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s

Perhaps the first post-Wes Anderson band, Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s take their name from Margot Tenenbaum of the 2004 Anderson film The Royal Tenenbaums. Formed in Indianapolis by Richard Evans, the band release their first record of twee chamber pop in 2006, The Dust of Retreat, and earned a small but loyal following. After a number of lineup changes and label issues, they return in 2014 with their fifth album Sling Shot to Heaven. Expect harmonies and tear-jerking lyrics with enough noisemaker symphonies to keep their songs dynamic.

Sat., May 3, 9 p.m., 2014


Horror Anthology Locker 13 Brings the Hurt, and Not In a Good Way

Horror anthologies aren’t easy to pull off, given the difficulty maintaining quality throughout. This is especially the case with Locker 13, where the linking element isn’t even consistent from vignette to vignette.

It’s a breakroom locker in the principal story, involving an ex-con janitor at a Wild West theme park and his existential philosopher supervisor (I had to check if Wes Anderson had a story credit).

In “Down and Out,” starring a dishearteningly craggy Rick Schroder as a boxer with only dementia pugilistica to look forward to, it’s a gym locker. True, all are designated by the number 13, but unless I missed the interstitials where the sinister storage compartment winged through space-time like a hinged Loc-Nar, that’s like making each character in each short observe that they used to wear size 9 shoes.

A lack of consistency mars the stories themselves, too. In “The Byzantine Order,” a 1910s Shriners-esque club stages a jocular initiation for a new member. That is, until the arrival of the Order’s grand pooh-bah, played by the Big Lebowski himself, David Huddleston, wheelchair-bound once again.

The transition from comedy to horror (and back) never fully gels, and nobody seems “on the trolley” with the period jargon. One or two segments piqued my interest (“Suicide Club” features gamblers wagering on depressives’ demises), but most are predictable (possessed boxing gloves? What could possibly go wrong?) or laughably over-the-top, such as the vile revenge anecdote “The Author,” in which Rick Hoffman (Suits) affects a Cuban accent so unbearable Al Pacino would ask him to tone it down.

Locker 13 brings the hurt, and not in a good way.


I’m Trying to Love Wes Anderson, That Miniaturist Puppet-Master

If you were to survey people who pay attention to movies — to go door-to-door with a clipboard, a sharpened No. 2 pencil, and a sheaf of forms with the word SURVEY printed in clean block letters across the top, later to be tabulated on a vintage Underwood adding machine — you might find that the number who want to love Wes Anderson’s work is greater than the number of those who actually do. Unlike so many movies today, all of Anderson’s, including his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, feel touched by human hands. His ascent in pop culture has coincided roughly with the renewed popularity of hand-knitting as a hobby; like a grandma-made sweater, Anderson’s pictures are put together stitch by meticulous stitch; they’re all knobbly with love.

When we’re feeling blockbuster-superheroed out, a Wes Anderson movie promises something that’s less and yet more: a retreat into a world of phonographs and nearly worn-out Stones LPs, a place where people dress for dinner, a house or a boat or a fox warren where everyone has a job to do and some feelings to feel. If you feel stressed out by the impersonal nature of modern life, Anderson is, in theory, the easiest filmmaker in the world to love.

So why can’t I, a person who loves many of the same things Anderson loves, love Wes Anderson? To be even more specific, why do I love only the stop-motion animation marvel Fantastic Mr. Fox, commonly known as “the Wes Anderson movie for people who hate Wes Anderson movies”? Anderson makes some moviegoers swoon and others groan; discounting the Venn diagram center of Fantastic Mr. Fox, there’s no wishy-washy in-between. And that in itself makes him fascinating: Wrestling with what you don’t love in a filmmaker can be more illuminating than singing the praises of one you do.

I find it easy enough to accept the heartfelt nature of Anderson’s 2012 Moonrise Kingdom, in which two little New Englandy misfits, a boy and a girl, run away together and stage their own version (sans sex) of The Blue Lagoon: The bigger world, the world of grown-ups, can’t understand them, but maybe nature can. Why not pack up the old Thermos bottle and escape, hand-in-hand? Anderson does seem to work from the heart. Several of his films are set in motion by an irrevocable loss: In both Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited, a parent has died, and a child — or a trio of children — just can’t get over it. Even when loss isn’t a grand motivating factor in Anderson land, it can still be a shadowy, potent force: Ben Stiller’s surly financier in The Royal Tenenbaums has lost his wife and doesn’t know how to grieve. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Bill Murray’s Jacques Cousteau–like sea explorer has lost his best friend and colleague (Seymour Cassel), and vows revenge on the shark that killed him. As overly precious as his movies may be, Anderson is hardly blind to overwhelming human emotions. Grief freezes us, and to live, we’ve got to crack through that numbness.

Anderson’s latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, deals with loss in a more general, overarching way. The movie opens in the present, as an elderly writer (Tom Wilkinson) reflects on his youth, recalling his 1968 stay at a once-glorious hotel located in the fictional Central European Republic of Zubrowka (“once the seat of an empire,” a title card tells us). The younger version of that writer, played by Jude Law, meets a mysterious hotel guest (or might he be the owner?) played by F. Murray Abraham, who regales him with stories of the hotel’s prewar glory days. Before the fascist forces of evil rose to power and ruined everything — Anderson’s faux Nazis are paranoia-inducing thugs whose symbol is a double-zigzag instead of a swastika — life at the hotel was filled with glamour, excitement, and good manners, all personified by its suave concierge and in-house gigolo, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). This genteel but exciting world was too good to last, and its great symbol, The Grand Budapest Hotel, has also fallen into a state of careworn shabbiness dusted with nostalgia.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most elegiac of all Anderson’s movies, and the most exquisitely detailed — this is a world of filigreed archways and medallion-patterned carpets, of train compartments paneled in rich woods and little cakes iced with the colors of springtime. Technically, the movie is probably the crowning achievement in Anderson’s HO-scale world, a mass of painstaking details that whisper a sigh of sadness for the loss of the old ways.

But can you mourn a lost world if you can’t even breathe? Some people may feel cozy and coddled while they’re watching a Wes Anderson movie, but I always feel that I’ve entered the airless interior of a panorama egg, and someone has closed the latch from the outside. That’s especially true of The Grand Budapest Hotel, its visual splendor notwithstanding. One of the chief characters, a junior hotel employee played by a young actor named Tony Revolori, wears a cap embroidered with the words “LOBBY BOY” in slightly wonky letters. It’s the slight wobbliness of the stitching that’s so annoying, a homespun touch that was clearly intentional, an adorable little curlicue of self-conscious Andersonian quaintness. That character’s love interest, a baker played by Saoirse Ronan, bears a birthmark in the shape of Mexico on her cheek. There’s no hidden meaning there — that purplish splotch is just a cute, random shape, a bit of whimsy designed to make us say, “Aha!” or perhaps “Oho!” Anderson fans may find that degree of calculation delightful. The rest of us are left whacking our palms against our foreheads, wondering how on Earth he gets away with it.

Stylization is one of the great tools of moviemaking — its broadness can capture nuances that naturalism omits. But what’s the tipping point between “stylized” and “mannered”? Is a mannered movie simply a stylized one you don’t like? Anderson is notorious for controlling every detail on the set, and even for those of us who don’t much like his movies, the level of old-school care he puts into his work counts for something. But is it possible to care too much about craft, at the expense of risk? Until very recently, seemingly 95 percent of movies, both big-studio films and independents, suffered from overuse of handheld cameras. It’s a trend that’s abating, thankfully, but Anderson never fell for it, which should be admirable. But even though Anderson’s films — as shot by his go-to cinematographer, Robert Yeoman — are beautiful to look at, he could stand to move the camera around a little more: His images are static to the point of passivity. He stares through the lens so intently that we see only what he sees — he so thoroughly subjects us to his imagination that we barely have to use our own.

Characters in live-action Wes Anderson movies have adventures, yet there’s no sense of adventure in them. It’s not just that everything we see on-screen has unfolded according to a rigid plan — Hitchcock, among the most methodical of filmmakers, worked from storyboards, and you can’t get much more rigid than that. But Hitchcock’s pictures move like panthers, not like machines. Anderson, on the other hand, can’t achieve, and perhaps doesn’t care about, the illusion of fluidity. Like him, I love tiny things, small things made carefully, and he recognizes that the unapologetic artificiality of a scale model can be more believable than its full-size (or CGI) counterpart.

Perhaps that helps explain my devotion to Fantastic Mr. Fox, the most technically obsessive film Anderson has ever made. It is, after all, a movie in which fur-covered puppets on wire armatures have been manipulated to do his bidding, shot by obsessive shot. George Clooney is the voice of Mr. Fox, a poultry thief and family man (or should that be family fox?) who tries to quit his life of crime but just can’t manage it. With the help of a group of woodland associates, he breaks into the stores of three greedy farmers. All of Anderson’s movies are about community, about being part of some makeshift or real family, but Fantastic Mr. Fox is the warmest and richest. When I find my annoyance with Anderson reaching peak levels, I think of the scene in which two little fox cousins who do not get along (voiced by Eric Anderson and Jason Schwartzman) creep from the beds in their cramped, shared bedroom — they’ve been bickering and can’t get to sleep — and turn on a tabletop model train. They watch together in silence as it clickety-clacks around its track in the darkness, their annoyance with each other momentarily forgotten. There’s no dialogue; the moment doesn’t need any.

With Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson put his trademark precision in the service of a story that ultimately feels wild and free. I have no idea how he pulled it off. Some have posited that Anderson is better when he’s adapting other people’s work, in this case, that of the rambunctious Roald Dahl. I’ve sometimes wondered if puppets aren’t Anderson’s ideal actors: They’re easier to bend, literally and figuratively, than real-live people.

But in some ways, he has less control of them: Human actors are capable of listening to and translating a director’s ideas, and their tools — voice inflections, subtle changes of expression, shifts in posture — have infinite gradations. Plus, they’re often eager to please the guy they’re working for. While puppets can be designed to exact specifications, and posed and moved quite precisely, they’re empty vessels. They have no personal experience to draw from, no genetically inherited grace or clumsiness, no acting training or style of their own to fall back on. In that sense, they’re the ultimate rebels; they have nothing to lose. Is it possible that Fantastic Mr. Fox allowed Anderson to edge closer to human feelings — his own or universal ones — because puppets, stubborn constructions that they are, made him work that much harder to figure out how human feelings should look?

How, for example, do you decide which direction the fur on a fox’s face should whorl to indicate that he’s stressed out or confused? What should his eyes look like when he thinks he’s about to lose everything? Of course, in animation, the actors’ voices go a long way in shaping individual characters. But those two silent little foxes, their eyes following that train as it goes round and round? Without words, they capture a specific but fleeting nuance of childhood joy and fragility. Anderson surely cares about every character he creates, but in Fantastic Mr. Fox, he shows true tenderness, divorced from gimmickry, for the first time. It’s a kind of earthbound magic.

No matter how little I care for Anderson’s other films, the unexpected miracle that is Fantastic Mr. Fox means I’ll never be able to turn away from him completely. Though when I said earlier that Fantastic Mr. Fox is the only Wes Anderson film I love unequivocally, I was exaggerating. His 2007 short, Hotel Chevalier, a companion piece to The Darjeeling Limited, is pretty close to perfect. In it, a nameless character played by Jason Schwartzman has set up camp in a Paris hotel room. In the short’s early minutes, he rings up room service and places an order in stilted, comic-book French, pausing to ask (in English) how to say “grilled cheese.” No sooner has he hung up the phone than it rings, and the husky voice he hears through the receiver — it belongs to Natalie Portman — thrills and terrifies him. She’s near the hotel; she’s coming to see him. We have no idea what the deal is with these two. We wait to see whether they’ll fall into each other’s arms or tear each other apart. Or both.

Hotel Chevalier is only 13 minutes long, but it’s as rich as a novel. The atmosphere is controlled — practically the whole thing takes place in a hotel room and its adjoining balcony — but Anderson lets danger and mystery in, more so than in any of his other movies. Hotel Chevalier is less a pure Wes Anderson film than a zephyr of Truffaut being channeled through Anderson; Schwartzman is his Antoine Doinel, a bundle of nerves in search of love in spite of himself. Anyone who can make a Hotel Chevalier must still have some surprises up his sleeve. Someday Wes Anderson might use his technical mastery, his sense of total control, to make a live-action movie that shows how little in life any of us can really control. It will be an adventure; it will be dangerous. And it will breathe.




The Grand Budapest Hotel Is Wes Anderson’s Most Mature and Visually Witty Effort

Leave it to Wes Anderson to make a film about World War II without mentioning Germany. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, a wundercabinet set in the fictitious Eastern European Republic of Zubrowka circa 1932, Anderson captures the collapse of a kingdom and rise of a reich without so much as an SS on a lapel. Here, it’s a ZZ — short for the Zig Zag Division — a logo that looks so adorable engraved on martini shakers and ping-pong tables that you could almost, but not quite, forget that its adherents are going to destroy the world.

See more images from The Grand Budapest Hotel

We’ve never seen a threat like the Zig Zags in Anderson’s films, which tend to be fastidiously wallpapered wombs where menchildren wrest with their delayed coming of age. At Anderson’s worst, the films are as narcissistic as The Darjeeling Limited, which was literally about rich white twerps making India’s working class deal with their baggage. Initially, Grand Budapest, too, appears to be one of his twee fantasies, opening with an animated funicular huffing up a mountain backdrop to arrive at the titular hotel. But with a blink, the image jumps from 1932 to 1968, and the building devolves from pink to drab. We realize that, for once, Anderson will let his airless snow globe be shaken and dropped, and in this case crudely glued back together by Communism, coyly referred to as the time of “common property.”

The Grand Budapest Hotel has the scope of a century. At the start, a modern punk visits the memorial of a great unnamed novelist. Quickly, we jump to 1985 and that author, played by Tom Wilkinson, reminiscing back two decades further still, to when he was young enough to be played by Jude Law, our handsomest character actor. Law plays the aspiring writer as a watchful insect, the Graspacious socialclimbereum of the weather-beaten hotel during its post-glory years. When Law sits down for supper with the mysterious Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the film once more leaps into the past to arrive at our main narrative: the story of how young Moustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori) ascended from the Grand Budapest’s Junior Lobby Boy-in-training under supreme concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) to owning the whole thing outright.

If you’re counting, Anderson is wrestling with four layers of fiction. It’s fitting: His characters have never sounded like real people, and now he has an excuse for paragraph-length monologues delivered without a blink. At these, Fiennes is brilliant. He understands that Anderson has a hard time distinguishing people from props, and plays Gustave as a bit of both, a self-created legend who strides around the hotel like the Fred Astaire of housekeeping.

Gustave is a fabulous contradiction, a sincere hustler who’s both fastidious and profane. Of his lovers, all dowagers getting their groove back at the Grand Budapest, he’s clearly shagging them for the cash. Still, he feeds their needs while proclaiming that their sagging flesh is “more flavorful.” Even here, in the past of the past of the past of the present, he’s a relic, an honorable man who so values protocol that he greets death squads with “How do you do?” (That said, occasionally, while in the middle of yet another speech on the value of civilization, he snaps and moans, “Aw, fuck it.”)

The thrust of the plot is Gustave’s efforts to prove he didn’t kill one of his heiresses (Tilda Swinton), a murder charge levied by her three tittering daughters and money-hungry son Adrien Brody, who, in his heavy black overcoat and crooked nose, stalks the film like Poe’s raven. But the emotional drama is Gustave’s struggle to keep order while chaos — personal and geopolitical — encroaches on his manicured fiefdom. Meanwhile, we’re all too aware that it’s futile: Soon, the whole thing will be blown to bits, and the generation after will have no use for gilded manners.

Anderson was inspired by the works of Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig, even dismissing his own script as “more or less plagiarism.” He’s selling himself short. Zweig died in 1942, a suicide who’d pulled up anchor in Vienna and fled to London then New York and, fatally, to Brazil after Hitler ascended to power. You won’t hear the word “Jewish” here, and Zweig was understandably more fatalistic. “Europe is finished, our world destroyed,” he lamented. But instead of offing himself with barbiturates, Anderson wants to celebrate the world that was, which is also, we suspect, the world he and his characters have always wished they lived in.

Grand Budapest is Anderson’s most mature film, and his most visually witty, too. It’s playful without being self-congratulatory, and somehow lush without being cloying in spite of its obsession with a bakery that cranks out only one pastry: a snowman-shaped confection with layers of pink, green, and cream. It’s dotted with absurd jokes I didn’t catch until a second viewing; say, a platter of duck that looks like roast pterodactyl. And both times I wanted to applaud the way cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman sneaks people like the villainous Willem Dafoe — a ghoul with skull-encrusted brass knuckles — into the shadows and then suddenly snaps them into focus.

For once, I’ll allow Anderson his fripperies. With Gustave, he’s made us sympathizers in his own fight for beautiful trifles, as though he sees his films as the frontline in the battle against crass, cash-in blockbusters. Like his doomed dandy, Anderson wants to resurrect the high-toned Hollywood filmmaking that perhaps never even existed. As Moustafa smiles of Gustave, at worst, people can say that these two nostalgists “sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”


Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel: A Marzipan Monstrosity

Greetings from the 64th annual Berlin Film Festival, where it’s a surprisingly balmy 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit). The weather here may not be business as usual, but the festival looks promising — the competition includes films by Alain Resnais, Lou Ye, Yoji Yamada, and Claudia Llosa (whose odd and rather wonderful picture The Milk of Sorrow won the top prize here, the Golden Bear, in 2009). But first things first: The festival kicks off this evening with Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, also in competition. It was screened for the press this afternoon, but not at the Berlinale Palast, the spacious and accommodating Potsdamer Platz venue where most of the big-ticket action takes place. It was shown instead in a smaller theater nearby, which filled up quickly. The overflow was directed to a second theater in the same complex, but before long we critics and journalists were nestled in comfortably, like mice snuggled in cotton wool, for an afternoon of Anderson’s follies.

Though I have tried many times over the years to like, or even just appreciate, Anderson’s films, with the exception of the work-of-genius Fantastic Mr. Fox, they elude me every time. The Grand Budapest Hotel strikes me as even less of a good thing, although, as its title suggests, it’s Anderson’s most elaborate, lavish-looking picture yet. The framing device for this marzipan monstrosity features an older writer from some fictitious Central European locale, played by Tom Wilkinson, reflecting on his younger days, when he was Jude Law. It was 1968, and our writer friend was camping out at a formerly luxurious, now down-at-the-heels hotel in the Republic of Zubrowka, which was, as a title card tells us in an emphatic parenthetical, “once the seat of an empire.” There he meets a mysterious older gent, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who may be the hotel’s owner. The two sit down to a lavish dinner in the hotel dining room, a storybook stag mural looming nobly behind them. Mr. Moustafa unravels a woolly tale involving the finest concierge he ever knew, a rather unapologetic gigolo by the name of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) who, in more prosperous prewar days, ran the hotel with the utmost in genteel efficiency. With his decorous bearing and penchant for ornate poetry, Gustave also courted the favors of a number of rich dowagers, among them Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), a wrinkled nervous wreck dressed in velvet robes straight out of Gustav Klimt.

What happens, as Anderson reveals through his static, deadpan camera lens, involves a priceless painting, a protégé, and a stint in prison, where a shirtless Harvey Keitel appears, his sagging flesh adorned with tattoos so crude Lena Dunham might have sketched them. Never let it be said that Anderson skimps on the details. There’s more: a sweet-natured baker whose cheek bears a birthmark in the shape of Mexico (Saoirse Ronan); the delightfully impish Mathieu Amalric in a thankless role as a loyal servant; and Adrien Brody, who has stolen Jean Cocteau’s hair to play Dmitri, Madame D.’s ungrateful, evil son. Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, and Jeff Goldblum all step forward to get a light dusting of Andersonia as well.

It’s all so tiny and adorable, in its grandiose way. Anderson is occasionally capable of making me giggle –- Wilson’s character is named M. Chuck, which is just silly, but I laughed. Plus, Anderson is a master at casting just the right actor for each of these willfully absurd characters. (Fiennes seems to be having fun with his role — its overstated curlicues are actually pretty subtle in his hands.) But why doesn’t any of this glittering incident seem to matter? It’s quite possible that fans of Anderson, the corduroy visionary, will love it. But The Grand Budapest Hotel brought out my inner Hunca Munca, of Two Bad Mice fame: This meticulously appointed dollhouse of a movie just went on and on, making me want to smash many miniature plates of plaster food in frustration. I would apologize afterward, of course, because I’m that kind of mouse. But not even the jaunty, percussive score by Alexandre Desplat left a mark: Too much of it sounds recycled from the truly great score Desplat wrote for Fantastic Mr. Fox. Once again, Anderson has left me unmoved. If I weren’t in such a good mood, and looking forward to the rest of what the Berlinale has to offer, I’d ask you to please pass me that diminutive plate of fake turkey, so that I may dash it to the ground.