Go to the Amazon reviews for Royal Tenanbaums or Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and there will quite a lot of five-star reviews praising Wes Anderson’s unorthodox approach to filmmaking or his idiosyncratic characters. But for each one of those, there is another reviewer who stumbled across Rushmore at a Redbox and thought it looked better than Mr. Popper’s Penguins. This reviewer never once smiled, nor entertained any other emotion throughout the movie other than complete boredom and indifference. If he is familiar with the cult surrounding Wes Anderson movies, and is insecure about his own understanding, he takes aim at his fellow reviewers, perhaps rightly so, for their smug cinematic elitism and their zeal for the dullest of movies. I personally don’t think either exuberance or indifference or resentment is the most honest way to respond to his movies. Below I’ll look for a word that can do justice to them.
Let me start by saying that I like most Wes Anderson movies. Bottle Rocket, his first, I’m not a fan of, and it’s been awhile since I’ve seen The Royal Tenanbaums, but I always enjoy watching Rushmore, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which was on last night. I won’t go into details about either of these three because, as we know, (or perhaps do not know if not familiar with the allegory of Agassiz and the fish), only watching the movies yourself can give this post anything other than the most superficial weight.
There are many things that Wes Anderson does right, but one (and it is of major fucking importance) that he does wrong. I think his wrongness may be inherent in his rightness, but I’ll have to think more about this. Let’s begin with the rightness.
First, his movies do not have sensational plots, but they are really interesting. The wiki plot says Life Aquatic is about “an eccentric oceanographer who sets out to exact revenge on the “Jaguar shark” that ate his partner Esteban.” Rushmore, if I remember, is about a high school student and club enthusiast at a private school who becomes infatuated, and is then rejected by, an elementary teacher who scribbled a moving quote in a library book that he checked out. His stories are original, and that can’t be said for most movies, but what makes them stand out, I think, is the enjoyment we see Anderson take in creating and focusing on the world behind the plot, as though the events pulling the story along were subordinate. This, I think, is the best part of Wes Anderson.
Next, nearly all his movies feature Bill Murray, who carries movies by himself. If you haven’t seen another movie of his, Lost in Translation, written and directed by the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola (writer of the Godfather series), Sofia Coppola, you should, because it is wonderful and it offers a nice remedy for what is wrong with Wes Anderson’s movies.
For my last point on his rightness, and this is equally as important as the first point, Wes Anderson is very good at keeping language fresh. He writes screenplays like a good novelist. It is intellectually (although not emotionally) refreshing, like reading a page of good fiction, to listen to the dialogue in his movies. On this point, he keeps music fresh as well, and I love listening to the music in his films.
The music, however, in concert with the words, can devolve the ethos of his movies into a familiar territory of what I will call detached-ironic-spineless-narcissism. It is no surprise that many people condemn Anderson’s defenders as pompous assholes, because nearly all the main characters in his movies are, in fact, pompous assholes. Steve Zissou, Max Fisher, Mr. Fox. Each one’s defining traits are arrogance and selfishness. Anderson uses it for comedic purposes, but the characters reflect, at times, the general attitude of the film.
Some say that Anderson’s movies employ dry humor. ‘Dry’ is not a strong enough adjective to describe the sense of humor though. ‘Dessicated’ humor would be more fitting. Some resent this aspect of his films, but it is true that there are no cues for when to laugh. There are no punch lines or zany characters like in The Office to give the camera a wry or ironic look when it is time for the audience to laugh. You have to accustom yourself to finding humor in its eccentricities. The Office exaggerates its characters to emphasize and democratize its ironic humor, and this is done in Anderson’s films too, but less so. I was insanely bored the first time I saw Life Aquatic, but last night I actually enjoyed it. I didn’t love it, but I enjoyed it for what it was.
Ultimately, I can’t bring myself to love one of his movies because there is a fundamental ambivalence at the heart of his movies– They want to both be nothing and be something. The uniquely detached dialogue and the outlandish stories try to tell the viewer, Hey, this is a odd, funny story that is only a story. But there is a palpable confidence, in all his films, with words and music, that what we are watching is worth watching, that it is more than an eccentric story. Personally, I don’t think this ambivalence can be resolved because, despite what we see in the film, all the characters are ultimately the same. They are all coldly and ironically, and often humorously, detached from what is going on around them. Because of this, the movies squander their ingenious humor because, in their effort to be uniformly eccentric, they never differentiate the characters, and therefore never inspire any feeling but intellectual amusement.
Like I said, watch Lost in Translation. There is still narcissism, but it is done well and has the humor of Anderson without losing the emotion.