Above: Wes Anderson. Image by s_bukley / Shutterstock.com
I finally got a chance to see The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s new zany, whimsical, and charmingly tragic picture, and it was absolutely gorgeous. My first thought upon leaving the theater was, “Did all that just happen?” as Anderson’s latest film fits more known and unknown actors, beautiful set pieces, madcap narrative turns, and stories within stories into 100 minutes than you’d ever thought possible. Many are calling The Grand Budapest Hotel Anderson’s mature masterpiece, and I’d be inclined to agree. However, for the viewer out there who hasn’t had the pleasure of visiting the wacky mind of Wes Anderson, it may be a good idea to brush up on his cinematic bibliography before settling in to The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Anderson, whose major motion picture career began with Bottle Rocket in 1996, has become known in Hollywood for the offbeat and whimsical, but looking back at his repertoire, his artistry is often linked with the tragic. Hipster and film nut type folks have been drawn to him over the years because of his signature style, how he imagines cinematic universes that seem more like novels than movies, but really Wes Anderson films are and always will be for everyone. Beyond the aesthetics of Anderson lies human tragedy, and each of his films is amazingly relatable to any viewer. But where to start from?
My general advice for those not in tune with Anderson’s unique realm is to begin with The Royal Tenenbaums. Arguably his most accessible film (and maybe his best), this movie about an aging con artist trying desperately to reconnect with his equally strange family is an adventure into the importance of family and the depths people can unwittingly sink to in trying to find their identity. It’s a film about dealing with loss, accepting feelings that can’t be stopped, and finding a sense of humor in the midst of often crippling circumstances (Gene Hackman as the titular character is darkly charming throughout, but really shines whilst performing Royal Tenenbaum at his most vulnerable). Also, the movie features Owen Wilson in Native American war paint (you’ll see why) and Ben Stiller having many nervous breakdowns. Bill Murray is in it, so that’s great.
Once you’ve seen The Royal Tenenbaums, sit back and watch Bottle Rocket, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and Rushmore, in no particular order (two out of three ain’t bad). All three of these films are quietly epic in their own ways, and show how extensive Anderson’s wit can be in all kinds of different stories and contexts. Zissou is the strangest of the three, but fits into these because it’s more character driven and has a strange love story.
Now, if you’ve made it this far, make sure you then enjoy the hell out of The Darjeeling Limited. It’s really odd and enlightening in that offbeat, Anderson way. And Owen Wilson is covered in bandages for most of the film, and that has to count for something. Jason Schwartzman, making a return to Wes Anderson’s dark, witty psyche, is amazingly charming, his performance alone a reason to watch the film.
Then, find a reasonably comfortable couch, a sack of your favorite childhood movie snacks, and buckle up for Moonrise Kingdom, a magical and secretly heavy take on childhood, love, loss, and innocence. Possibly one of the strangest and best films ever (there’s something ineffable about it), this is Wes Anderson at the zenith of storytelling, relying on two new kids to the acting world, with his usual cast of veterans, to carry a story filled with adult tragedy but also childhood whimsy. Anderson proves that true love actually exists via the sterling performances of two child actors, and that’s quite a fun achievement.
Watch The Fantastic Mr. Fox if you want to be filled with merriment but also be a teensy bit creeped out. Super great movie, though.
Now you’re ready to watch the comedically tragic, masterfully constructed The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film that beautifully joins Anderson’s visual aesthetic with his heaviest source material yet. The film is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, and fills the viewer with a sense of nostalgia present throughout the story. Like all of the films preceding it, it’s a meditation on the past, but also on an uncertain future informed by that experience. But also, it cleverly asks the audience to see even the most tragic events through the lens of humor and fantastical imagination, two things that Anderson knows how to utilize like a master, and I hope he continues to employ in (hopefully) many more future flicks.