tea: no cream, two sugars

I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel tonight, and I enjoyed it in a way I haven't enjoyed a Wes Anderson movie in a long, long time. It feels scandalous to admit, but the truth is, none of his subsequent films have charmed me nearly as much as Rushmore did. At least, not in the way they seem to charm everyone else.

It's actually been kind of lonely, this Anderson apathy of mine. I mean, you don't confess to something like that without garnering looks of shock, if not outright contempt. It's Wes Anderson, after all. He's a fucking genius, and the patron saint of indie film-loving creatives everywhere. How dare I.

Don't get me wrong. I really, really like his work. His stories are heartwarming and delightfully taut. The aesthetics of his set design and costume are utterly beguiling. Heck, I left Tenenbaums (and later, Moonrise Kingdom) wanting to redo my entire wardrobe in head-to-toe Anderson heroine chic. Natural fabrics to regulate my body temperature when adventuring! Muted brights to set off the glow of guarded optimism in my face! 

But watching his movies sometimes feels like eating a sleeve of Pepperidge Farm cookies. They are pure perfection, irresistible deliciousness...right up until the point that I've had too many and I have to shove them away, semi-disgusted. And just like the binge, no one can know about it. Because Anderson films are such lovingly appointed dollhouses that to criticize them is to be the bully who pooh poohs the playroom tea party. I don't wish to pooh pooh the tea party. It's a very lovely tea party, and I'm glad to have been invited. I'd just like my tea a mite stronger, please.

But back to Budapest. I haven't seen Anderson's complete works, but those I have, I personify thusly: Rushmore is the smart-alecky kid; Tenenbaums is the snarky graduate student; Life Aquatic is the eccentric uncle, and Moonrise Kingdom is the bookish teenager. These characterizations are meaningless, but they helped me figure out what Grand Budapest is, and why I liked it so much: it's the favored, playfully conspiring grandfather. The one I want all to myself for an afternoon of swapping tall tales.

Ironically, what I loved about Budapest is how it's both "so Anderson", and so not. All the usual themes are in place: the fight against injustice, innocence vs. experience, adolescent love, and the most interesting to me - the families we get vs. the ones we choose (the classmates of Rushmore, the boat crew of Life Aquatic, the scout troop of Moonrise Kingdom, the hotel staff of Budapest...). But it feels like Anderson is doing some things for the first time. Poking fun at himself, for one (my favorite instance of this being the hilariously campy degree to which the ski/sled scene action is sped up). And more significantly: getting his hands dirty. Really dirty, in fact.

There's violence in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Multiple murders and gruesome bodily dismemberment. Sure, it's funny - but darkly so. There's no on-screen sex, but sexuality is referenced frequently and unabashedly (there's even an allusion to prison rape!). The story is set against the backdrop of war.

There's a cat thrown out a window.

A cat. Thrown out a window.

Everything about it feels like Anderson, but evolved. More mature. More evenly balanced between light and dark, between creative abandon and directorial self-awareness. Even the Society of the Crossed Keys cameo montage feels less like a showy parade of celebrities (zomg! everyone wants to be in my movies!) and more like an acknowledging wink at an absurdly star-studded club (lol, everyone wants to be in my movies).

But you can't talk about what makes Budapest wonderful without talking about Ralph Fiennes's character, as conceived and as played. He's more fully fleshed out with imperfection and contradiction than any Anderson character I've yet to meet. In turns a scoundrel and a gentleman (occasionally at the same time), we never quite know how pure his intentions are. And that's okay, because he's written with such nuance that it seems unclear if he even knows. His ambivalence (which runs all the way down to his sexuality) is intriguing to his last bits of dialogue.

I could go on, but the point is, I'm happy to say the bloom is back on my Wes Anderson rose. In fact now I'm inspired to go back and catch up on what I've missed, if for no other reason than I'm curious to see when this evolution began. Bottom line: I would never want Anderson to lose his twee. I just want him to keep sharpening it. Sharp tools are always the most effective - even when all they're building is a dollhouse.