Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Wes Anderson Retrospective: Part I: Early Promise and Success

Wes Anderson made his feature directorial debut 18 years ago with Bottle Rocket – a film he co-wrote with Owen Wilson, who also starred alongside his brother Luke, in the film. That film was a minor critical success, but a box office failure- but it garnered him enough attention and praise to continue making his unique brand of film – on a somewhat larger scale ever since. The Grand Budapest Hotel, his 8th feature, opened in New York on March 7, and is slowly expanding around the country – and has garnered him some of the best reviews of his career, and is doing great business in limited release. As I have had to wait a little longer than I would have liked to see the film, I decided to go back and re-watch all 7 of Anderson’s films – some, for the first time in years – and offer a small, three part retrospective look at his work. This is part I.

In 1994, Wes Anderson made a 13 minute short about a pair of would be small time crooks – Dignan and Anthony. The short was shot in black and white, for no money, but it does have a low-key charm to it. The short garnered enough attention for Anderson and his star/co-writer Owen Wilson to spin it off into a feature film – which was released two years later.

I’ve now seen Bottle Rocket at least three times now. Each time I watch the film, I enjoy it. It isn’t quite as stylistic as Anderson’s subsequent work – but you can certainly tell it’s an Anderson film – particularly in Anderson’s choice of music, his mixture of comedic and melancholy elements and some of his favorite shots – there’s an underwater shot here, as there often is in an Anderson movie, and his use of slow motion is distinctly his own (and one of the few director who uses it in a way I don’t find annoying). Owen Wilson gives one of his best performances as Dignan – a man who sees himself as a future big time criminal mastermind – he obsesses about the details of his plans (much like Wilson’s character would obsess over the details of the brothers trip in The Darjeeling Limited). This was Wilson’s acting debut – but his now well-known comedic persona is pretty much already fully developed – if tinged with a little bit more sadness than normal. The same could be said for his brother Luke, who plays Dignan’s best friend Anthony – just released from the mental hospital because “he decided he didn’t want to make another decision again” – who goes along with Dignan and his schemes one more time – only to find something greater when they’re “on the run” – as he falls in love with a motel maid from Paraguay – before Dignan hatches one big scheme to get them in good with the local “big shot” criminal Mr. Henry (James Caan – playing off his well-earned screen image).

The first films by great directors most often fall into two categories –the ones who make a great film right off the bat – like Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs or the Coens with Blood Simple, and the ones who made a good film that would most likely be forgotten if they didn’t go on to become great filmmakers – like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight or Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth. Bottle Rocket is clearly in the second category. It’s a good film – and it shows that Anderson has skill both as a writer and a director, and you can see his burgeoning style behind the camera. It’s also somewhat refreshing for an indie crime film from the mid-1990s, as it isn’t trying to be a Tarantino knock off like everyone else was trying to be in 1996 (interestingly in the 1994 short, it starts with the Wilson brothers discussing Starsky & Hutch – but Anderson omits this from the feature, perhaps because he felt having criminals discuss pop culture would be too Tarantino-esque).

Yet Bottle Rocket is also a largely forgettable film. As I said, this is my third time watching it, but while I remember the opening – with Anthony “escaping” the mental hospital and the ending, with Dignan in jail – pretty much the entire middle portion of the film always slips my mind. In short, Bottle Rocket is an enjoyable, low key film – but one I think very few would still remember if Anderson hadn’t gone on to bigger and better things – it’s most interesting to see where he started, and to see how he developed as a filmmaker.

Just two years later Anderson delivered on the promise he showed in Bottle Rocket and made his first legitimately great film – Rushmore. Anderson re-teamed with co-writer Owen Wilson to make this film about Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) – a 15 year old who goes to an exclusive private school on a full scholarship – despite the fact that he’s failing most of his courses. Fischer is almost impossibly bright – but he spends so much time doing every extra-curricular activity he can (hilariously seen early in the film as a montage) that he has no time to study. He meets two adults in succession that change his life. Mrs. Cross (Olivia Williams) is a new teacher at Rushmore – a recent widow – who Fischer falls in love with. Cross tries, repeatedly, to let Max down gently – but he doesn’t take the hint. Then there is Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a wealthy industrialist, with two idiot sons he despises who go to Rushmore. Blume gives a talk at the school about how awful rich kids are - Max likes the speech – and the two becomes friends, perhaps because Max reminds him more of himself than his own kids do. The friends become rivals when Herman also falls in love with Mrs. Cross.

Rushmore is really the film where we start to see what would drive Anderson – both stylistically and thematically – for the rest of his career (so far). He is aided a great deal by the performances of the two central characters – played by Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray, both of whom would go on to appear in several other Anderson films (Murray has been in every one since – Schwartzman appears in The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel). I think there is more than a little of Anderson in Max Fischer – a man driven by obsessive detail, who gets his “Max Fischer Players” to buy into his detailed plays, and deliver huge scale results on little money. Schwartzman delivers a terrific performance as a teenager who seems more intelligent than a 15 year old should be, while at the same time being as immature as you would expect. Amazingly, it was his debut performance, but he already shows the perfect comedic timing he continues to show, and immediately gets Anderson’s mixture of melancholy and comedic elements. Like Wilson in Bottle Rocket, Schwartzman seems to come to his debut fully formed as a comedic persona. Max, like all of Anderson’s younger protagonists, has parental issues – which helps to explain why he latches onto to two older people. He lies about what his father does for a living – telling people he’s a brain surgeon, when in fact he’s a barber, and his mother died when he was young.

As for Murray, he begins what is probably the best director-star relationship of his career here. Anderson’s deadpan, melancholy yet comedic style, is perfect for Murray – nowhere more so than in Rushmore, which makes great use of Murray’s sad, lined face which brightens momentarily when it looks like he may have found love with Mrs. Cross – but sinks deeper when she leaves him. Murray’s Herman Blume is really little more than a pathetic teenager – he’s a perfect match for Max because they are both about as mature as the other one – except Max has the excuse that he’s an actual teenager. Blume is probably the saddest and most pathetic of all of Murray’s creations for Anderson – and his best performance – one of the few times where I still get bothered years later than the Academy overlooked his work (how the hell did they NOT nominate him?).

Yet Rushmore has perhaps the “happiest” ending of all of Anderson’s films – or at least the most hopeful (for Max anyway). While all of Anderson’s films end on a superficially upbeat note, Rushmore is the one least undercut by the melancholy that has become Anderson’s trademark. You actually get the feeling that Max is going to do than just soldier on, which is what many Anderson protagonists get in the end, but that he has actually grown. I hold out more hope for Max than I do for Dignan or the Tenenbaum children for example.

Speaking of the Tenenbaums that brings us to what I think is Anderson’s masterpiece at this point in his career – The Royal Tenenbaums. Rushmore made a big name for Anderson in critical and film buff circles, and three years later he followed it up with an even better, more ambitious film. Once again co-written by Owen Wilson (for the last time, as Wilson moved on to just being an actor after this), The Royal Tenenbaums is about three children who were child prodigies in their field, who have grown up to become emotionally stunted adults- thanks in part to an absent father. Gene Hackman gave the last great performance of his career as Royal Tenenbaum, the father in question, who left the family when the children were still young, and has pretty much been absent for at least the last few years. What brings him back is that his wife, Anjelica Huston, wants to finally get a divorce, so she can marry Royal’s total opposite – an accountant played by Danny Glover. Royal tells the family he’s dying to try and earn some sympathy, and weasel his way back into their lives.

The three Tenenbaum children are Richie (Luke Wilson) a tennis champion, who after a very public meltdown has spent time sailing around the world, Chas (Ben Stiller), a financial wizard, still reeling from the death of his wife the previous year, who has become overprotective of his two sons, and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), a playwright, who spends hours locked in the bathroom watching TV and ignoring her much older husband – the psychologist played by Bill Murray. All three children move back home at the same time Royal comes back.

The children are a mess, in part at least because of their unresolved childhood issues. While Royal’s emotional and eventual physical absence from their lives has undoubtedly scared them, I was also struck this time through with how Huston’s Etheline played a role in her children’s unraveling as well. Who, after all, writes a book called “Family of Geniuses” about her three young children? If Royal expects nothing from his children – because he barely seems to care – that perhaps Etheline expects far too much – and the coming together of these two elements damages the children completely.

There is more, of course, than just parental issues affecting the Tenenbaum children however- the death of Chas’s wife has left him an emotional wreck, although he tries to hide it behind a wall of cynical contempt. A small moment that I had forgotten left me a wreck this time through – when Chas sets his kids up in bunk beds, and then instead of leaving decides that he’ll just camp out on the floor that night, and his younger son comes down and wordlessly lies next to him – he’s doing it for his father, and not himself, and the gesture was so touching I nearly cried. I did cry later when Chas finally lets his guard down and says “We’ve had a rough year, dad”. Richie and Margot have their own issues – mainly stemming from Richie being in love with Margot (who, he points out, is his adopted sister) for their whole lives – this is what led to his breakdown, and what will eventually lead to his suicide attempt. Margot loves him as well – but is at least somewhat better at handling it, even if she no longer writes, and just sits around depressed all day.

Also interesting is the character played by Owen Wilson – a childhood friend of Richie’s, who unlike the Tenenbaum children has actually become a success in his adult life writing what sounds like Cormac McCarthy-like Westerns (I didn’t notice how McCarthy-like until this viewing – perhaps because I hadn’t seen the film in years -  before I read my first McCarthy novel). Although he is successful, all he really ever wanted to be is a Tenenbaum – and even though he sees how screwed up they are, he still wants that. He has his own issues as well – with alcohol and depression – showing that it’s not just failure making the Tenenbaum’s depression.

Like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums is essentially a coming of age movie – it’s just that its characters do it several decades after they probably should have – that includes Royal. Hackman plays him as a larger than life character – someone with a smile always on his face, the kind of guy everyone loves, unless of course you actually know him, and then he can be thoughtlessly cruel. But even he will eventually “grow up” as it were – as his “fake” attempt to get back into favor with his family eventually becomes a real one – even if he’ll never be able to completely undo the damage he’s done – he at least now can recognize what he has done, and attempt to back amends (the scene with him and Margot in an ice cream shop is one of my favorites).

Stylistically, this is the most “Wes Anderson” of the Wes Anderson films to date – he had a little more budget here, and he seems to have used it in part to have a larger cast, and in part to create his meticulously art directed and costume designed world – the Tenenbaums house being a triumph of art direction to rival the Bellefonte in The Life Aquatic, the train in The Darjeeling Limited or the underground tunnel system in Fantastic Mr. Fox. The various clothes worn by each character in The Royal Tenenbaums offers a glimpse into them before they’ve even opened their mouths.

The ending of The Royal Tenenbaums sets up what would become a standard Anderson ending – the one that offers a little hope for its characters, but not real happiness. The characters in The Royal Tenenbaums are able to forgive the sins of their father, and decide to attempt to move on with their lives – yet that doesn’t guarantee them further success. Margot is able to write a new play, but it’s not a huge commercial or critical success for example. It’s a somewhat hopeful ending – we don’t think there will be another suicide attempt in the future – but that’s not exactly a happy ending.

Tomorrow we’ll look at two more Anderson films – the ones that made some question just how good Anderson really was.

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