Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Wes Anderson Retrospective Part II: Growing Pains – The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) & The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

In the span of five years, Wes Anderson had directed three films that got an increasing amount of acclaim and attention. At the tail end of the 1990s and the early 2000s, he made pretty much everyone’s list of the best emerging filmmakers in America – hell Martin Scorsese himself choose Anderson as the “next Martin Scorsese”. I love Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums so much that in the winter of 2004 the amount of anticipation I had for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was rivaled only by the anticipation I had for Scorsese’s The Aviator – and Scorsese is my favorite filmmaker of all time.

When it finally came out, The Life Aquatic was one of the biggest disappointments of the year for me. It was undeniably a Wes Anderson film – it was a masterpiece of production design, contained some eye popping stop motion animation work by Henry Selick (Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas), contained another fine sad eyed, yet funny performance, by Bill Murray – and other strong performances as well – most notably by Willem Dafoe as Zissou’s right hand man Klaus, , and had some interesting music – including a host of David Bowie covers sung in Portuguese. And yet I felt The Life Aquatic was ultimately a rather empty film – one that looked great, but didn’t connect in anyway emotionally. This was the common complaint (and remains the most prevalent one) about Anderson’s work – but it’s one I never agreed with before. However much style there is in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, I still connected with the characters and their pain – The Royal Tenenbaums even had me crying in my most recent re-watching of the film.

I watched The Life Aquatic in 2005 on DVD to see if perhaps it was simply a case of my expectations being too high – or if perhaps it was a film that rewarded audiences with multiple viewings – Anderson’s films always benefit from seeing them more than once, because he packs so much into them. But I was left with the same feeling. I didn’t watch the film again until last week – once again hoping that this time I would connect with it. Sadly, I still didn’t.

The film is still brilliant to look at – there is so much detail to Zissou’s ship, the Bellefonte that I could probably watch it again and again and still not capture all the visual details. Yet, the film still feels emotionally distant to me. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scene where Owen Wilson’s Ned dies in a helicopter crash. Visually, the scene is striking – with Steve and Ned floating in the water after the crash, the camera bobbing in the water that is gradually revealed to be turning red – bloody water even splashes the camera lens at one point. But the whole scene seems to have staged only for the visual impact of it all – not the emotional one. As with the rest of the movie, I never felt any real connection between Steve and his (potential) long lost son played by Wilson. Part of it, I think, is because of Wilson’s silly, exaggerated Kentucky accent (Wilson, from Texas himself, has never gone so over the top with his Southern accent before). Part of it is that I cannot help but think that no matter how good Murray is in certain scenes of the film, that he was still wrong for the role of Steve Zissou – who is a character not that different than Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum. Hackman –rightly – went boldly comedic and emotional with his performance. Murray does more of his understated, sad eyed routine – which works for him in every other Wes Anderson movie, but doesn’t here. Steve Zissou is the engine that drives the plot, and Murray is always better playing a little more passive – reacting to the things around him he cannot control, rather than setting in motion the action himself.

There are other things that could be the reason the film doesn’t work as well as it should. Perhaps we always under estimated Wilson’s contributions as a screenwriter with Anderson – this was the first film that Wilson did not co-write with Anderson – that honor going to Noah Baumbach this time around. Given Wilson’s (now public) struggle with depression, it’s not wholly inconceivable that he contributed to the sense of melancholy that was present in Anderson’s first three films – and handled better. Perhaps Baumbach simply let Anderson indulge in all of his own idiosyncratic obsessions, and didn’t push Anderson to ground them in believably emotional terrain. That’s all speculation of course – perhaps it’s something altogether different – but given that I think the film is a step back for Anderson, and it’s the first one without Wilson as a co-writer, it makes sense.

Or maybe it’s just that while in his mid-30s, Anderson never really connected with Zissou as a character. This is a character who is worried about failure – someone with a long career behind him, who worries that he will never be good again, and worries about his legacy and the roads not taken in his own life. Whatever the reason, no matter how much I admire parts of The Life Aquatic – and there are brilliant moments sprinkled throughout the film – I think my initial feelings on the film are still correct – it’s a disappointment from Anderson, and his weakest overall film to date.

It took Anderson another three years to complete his next film – The Darjeeling Limited. I like this film a lot more than The Life Aquatic – I actually think overall it’s a very good movie – although I still think that it is fairly minor Anderson – and one where he’s still trying to figure out where to go next. That works for the film however, as that is basically the journey the three brothers at the core of the movie are also going on.

It’s been a year since their father died – and Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) haven’t seen each other in that time. They are reuniting however for a train trip across India. Everything has been meticulously planned by Francis – who has an assistant on another part of the train, who helpfully provides them with laminated itineraries every morning. Francis was in a motorcycle accident, that may not have been so accidental, and his head is bandaged up. Peter’s wife is pregnant – 6 weeks away from giving birth – which makes him nervous, because he assumed that they were going to get divorced. Jack has just broken up with his girlfriend (seen in the brilliant short, Hotel Chevalier aka The Darjeeling Limited part 1, which is 13 minutes of Anderson’s best filmmaking) but obsesses over her still. Unbeknownst to Peter and Jack, at the end of their journey, the trio of brothers will meet their mother (Anjelica Huston), who has become a nun, and who they haven’t seen in a long time (she didn’t even show up for their father’s funeral).

For the first little bit of The Darjeeling Limited, the film seems like it’s going to be little more than a relaxed comedy about these three brothers who both love and hate each other, travelling through a culture they do not understand. There are worse things a movie can be – especially when, like the boat in The Life Aquatic, the train in this movie is an art director’s wet dream – and Anderson uses the colorful Indian backdrop in a unique, non-traditional way.

The movie is better than that I think – and becomes so in three sequences – most notably when the trio of brothers attempts to save another trio of brothers – much younger, when they fall into the river – two of them succeeding, and one failing. Yet the sequence, which brings life and death into the movie, deepens everything else in the film – and sets up the other two great sequences – a flashback to their father’s funeral, and their eventual meeting with their mother. The ending of The Darjeeling Limited is more than a little heavy handed – as the brother literally leave their father’s baggage behind them as they move off into an uncertain future.

I had only seen The Darjeeling Limited once before last week – back when it was in theaters in 2007. I remember liking it then, but also shrugging it off. I pretty much feel the same way about it now, having seen it a second time. It’s a very good film – a little looser than most of Anderson’s work, not quite as controlled. Like most of Anderson’s films, it provides an ending that offers hope for its characters, but doesn’t neatly tie their problems in a bow – they’ll move on, but to what, I’m not sure. The performances by Wilson, Brody and Schwartzman are great – and they get some good support from everyone – especially Huston, and in a wordless performance, Bill Murray, representing the father they are leaving behind. Yet I still cannot help but view the film as Anderson treading water – figuring out where to go next. Again, since that’s where his characters are, it works for the movie, but also makes it somewhat lesser of a film that his best work.

The final part goes tomorrow – looking at two more of Anderson’s best film.

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