Thursday, March 20, 2014

Wes Anderson Retrospect Part III: Maturation

I know I was not the only one in 2009 concerned that perhaps Wes Anderson was never going to quite become the great director I thought I was going to be after Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. In the 8 years since Tenenbaums, he had only directed two features – and as laid out in the previous section, they were the weakest since his debut film Bottle Rocket. Anderson seemed at least bit like he was drifting after Tenenbaums’ success. While The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited both looked great, neither rose to the level of Anderson’s previous films. I was not alone in thinking this – just look at last week’s Criticwire Survey – the film most often cited as Anderson’s “Worst” was The Darjeeling Limited – followed by Life Aquatic (which also had a few “best” citations as well) and Bottle Rocket.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that Anderson’s next film was an animated family film, based on a Roald Dahl book. On one hand, Dahl had clearly been a huge influence on Anderson – you can see that in pretty much all of his previous films, so the subject matter would be in Anderson’s comfort zone. And animation, especially stop motion animation, requires meticulous attention to detail – something Anderson obviously possesses. I was still worried however that perhaps what we would get was another Life Aquatic – a brilliant looking film, where Anderson allows his idiosyncratic visual obsessions to take over completely from plot and character – ending up with only half a great movie.

It was a relief then to find that not only was Fantastic Mr. Fox a great film – it may just be Anderson’s best – but also that for the first time since The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson was able to marry his obsessive visual details to a genuine story, with (and this is surprising) realistic characters. Anderson and Noah Baumbach adapted Dahl’s short classic children’s story – expanding it to fill it out its running time, but not in the same way the filled out the Dr. Seuss stories like How the Grinch Stole Christmas or The Cat in the Hat – but in a way that felt consistent not only with Dahl’s creation, but also Anderson’s obsessions.

Fantastic Mr. Fox addresses many of the same themes that have run through Anderson’s work – the challenges of a long term marriage that at least threaten to end in divorce and a complicated father figure who is charming and liked by all – except perhaps his son, who tries everything to impress him but can never quite measure up. The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Fox (brilliantly voiced by George Clooney and Meryl Streep) is a somewhat softer version of many longtime marriages in Anderson movies – she wants him to change his ways, and while he tries, in the end he can never quite let go of the past. He is a chicken thief and a wild animal– and a damn good one – and while he tries to go straight when they have a cub, he slips back into his old ways. There is an argument between the married couple – where she literally claws his face – that is as honest and realistic as anything that Anderson has ever put on screen (“I love you, but I never should have married you”). As a father, Mr. Fox is not unlike Royal Tenenbaum or Steve Zissou – he is rather distant from his son Ash (a great vocal performance by Jason Schwartzman) – because he isn’t as athletic as his father was. This is only exasperated by the arrival of Cousin Kristofferson – who is able to do with ease what Ash cannot do at all – and it doesn’t escape the attention of Mr. Fox – who invites Kristofferson, but not Ash, to join him as his lovable, dimwitted possum sidekick Kylie on their raids on the farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean.

This being an animated film aimed at children (at least outwardly), Anderson softens things a little bit – Mr. and Mrs. Fox do not get divorced, and Mr. Fox eventually does tell Ash how much he loves him – but not a lot. This remains a Wes Anderson movie to its core and the director seemingly makes few concessions to try to reach a wider, younger audience (which probably explains why he really didn’t – the film didn’t exactly set box office records). Yet Fantastic Mr. Fox is – to me anyway – Anderson’s most purely entertaining film. Visually, the film is stunning as all Anderson films are – filled with little details in the background that you don’t notice the first time through. The story moves quickly – from Fox robbing all three of Boggis, Bunch and Bean, to them coming after them and the rest of the animals. The voice cast is stellar – no one more so than Clooney, who is in full movie star mode as Mr. Fox, and I’m not sure if he’s ever been funnier. The score by Alexandre Desplat is wonderfully strange, and despite Bean’s complaint (“That’s just weak songwriting. You wrote a bad song Petey”) – Petey’s Song gets stuck in my head every time I hear it. The film is full of more quotably one liners than anything else Anderson has made. Fantastic Mr. Fox is brilliant because every element comes together just about perfectly – from the melding of the sensibilities of Dahl and Anderson, to the use of stop motion animation, and Anderson’s attention to detail (which apparently, drove some of the animators crazy – which is odd because you think if you work in a field that requires you to make miniscule adjustments to puppets 24 times to get one second of film, you would be used to obsessive types). I don’t know if Anderson will ever work in animation again – given the lackluster box office for the film, and the fact that they’re not exactly cheap to make, my guess would be not – but I hope he does. It fits his sensibilities perfect.

Three years later, Anderson followed up Fantastic Mr. Fox with Moonrise Kingdom – a return of sorts to a film focusing on younger characters for the first time since Rushmore. While Moonrise Kingdom contains all the trappings of Anderson’s film – the meticulous production and costume design, the precise deadpan delivery of its stars, it is also perhaps the most nakedly sincere film of Anderson’s career. The story involves two children on the cusp of becoming teenagers who feel isolated and alone – and together forge a romantic bond in the waning days of the summer of 1965 on the New England island of New Penzance. Jared Gilman is Sam – an orphan, who has been shuttled from one foster home to another, and is spending the summer with the Khaki Scouts on the island. The previous summer he met Kara Hayward’s Suzy – when she was playing an melancholy raven in a local theater production. Her parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) are both lawyers, think she is “disturbed”, and are too absorbed in themselves to really see her properly. The two agree to meet up and run off together and form their own Moonrise Kingdom – while Suzy’s parents, the Khaki Scouts and the police all close in on them, looking to snatch away their happiness.

Anderson has always seen romance in two ways – young love is often idealized in Anderson’s movies – even if it is inappropriate, like Max’s crush on his teacher in Rushmore or Richie falling in love with his adopted sister Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums. Nowhere is this more true than with Sam and Suzy – who do genuinely seem to love each other in the way that only teenagers can – and it’s a love that so sweet, that it eventually wins almost everyone else over. They may be young – and lord knows that the chances are their love will not last – but for now, there love is pure. Contrast this with the romantic entanglements of the adults in Moonrise Kingdom – Frances McDormand is having an affair with the local police chief (Bruce Willis), who is left heartbroken when she breaks it off (when Sam asks him if he’s ever been in love, and he says yes, and Sam follows up with “What happened?”, Willis’ response “She didn’t love me back” is perhaps the best line reading in Willis’ career). As with all of the long term marriages in Anderson’s films, Suzy’s parents are in danger of breaking apart. The kids are in a rush to grow up – and get married themselves – but as an audience member, I wanted them to slow down and enjoy their lives – things are going to get worse for them, and Anderson knows it. Although the ending of Moonrise Kingdom is superficially a happy one – Sam gets a new adopted father, and he and Suzy are not forever ripped apart – it’s also somewhat melancholy – Sam and Suzy will probably never have the freedom they did during their short moments on the beach – full of awkward kissing, proclamations of love and a surrogate loss of virginity (the earrings). This is a typical Anderson tactic in ending his films – where the characters may be in a better place than when the film started, but still not truly happy – just more able to soldier onto to the next stage in their lives.

Wes Anderson is now eight films into a distinctive career. I haven’t seen The Grand Budapest Hotel yet – and I hope it’s as good as I have heard it is. Already, I’ve heard some complaints that it is a “typical Wes Anderson movie” from some – that it’s all style and no substance. And I’ve also heard the counter argument – that because the surface of Anderson’s films are so distinctive, he often doesn’t get enough credit for the film’s emotional and thematic heft. Kent Jones made this argument in Film Comment when writing about Fantastic Mr. Fox – Sam Adams made the argument in regards to The Grand Budapest Hotel. This is something I’ve often felt about Anderson’s work – which so many people, even some of his biggest fans, get so obsessed with the surface of his films that they don’t give Anderson credit for how complex the movies actually are. He is one of the filmmakers whose films reward you when you re-watch them. Part of that is the surface – Anderson is so obsessed with the surface, that it is impossible to catch all the details he layers in on a first viewing. But part of that is because you need to look beyond the surface to see what Anderson is really up to. As with any filmmaker whose films are so distinctive visually, at times he makes films that are precisely what his detractors claim them to be – all style, no substance. The Coens have done this in films like The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. Anderson has done this in a film like The Life Aquatic. If he continues to make films, he will probably do the same thing again. But he also keeps on pushing himself to be better, to go deeper. And when he succeeds, he is one of the best filmmakers in the world today.  

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