Essay: The Endless Adolescence of Wes Anderson

reviewed by Dan Magers

The peculiar exchange near the end of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou— where Cate Blanchett seems to be accommodating Zissou before he needs it— voices the preoccupation threading through all of Wes Anderson's films, from Bottle Rocket to The Darjeeling Limited. Why else would the pregnant reporter say, “In twelve years, he will be eleven and a half,” if not to let Captain Zissou reply, “that was my favorite age”?

The charming and sometimes talented outcasts of his films collect a nucleus of people around themselves to replace reality— Anderson's films are like tree houses, but whereas action movies in particular can put playtime on steroids, Anderson often gets his actors to literally play like kids: Royal Tenenbaum's shenanigans with his grandsons, or Max Fischer and Mr. Blume jogging together to shape up. Scenes come complete with costumes, rope ladders, plans, insignias. Where else, except childhood, do the plans become the point? If it seems too harsh to say that his films are populated with liars, it is because of Margot with her cigarettes, or Max with his neurosurgeon dad, are not out for harm or substantial gain. They coyly hold information so that you can become part of the club… should you get to learn it.

More often than other directors, Anderson will cultivate emotional responses through the pity or self-pity of his characters, as if they all are motivated by pure angst. Anthony joining Dignan's new crime gang after Dignan is mocked for wearing a jumpsuit— as if to rescue him from humiliation. Richie Tenenbaum, after his suicide attempt, is surprisingly unflappable at the hospital, as if he already received his reward.

These aspects found their aesthetic high point in Rushmore. Max Fischer is still the best character that Wes Anderson has ever created: schemer, charmer, and boy genius in his own mind, with a relentless ambition for something that doesn't need to be anything in particular. In the exuberant first five minutes, Anderson teases out the unreality of the hardest geometry problem in the world, and then plays straight Max's membership in eighteen different clubs— as if a figment of Max's imagination was exploding into the reality of his friends and classmates. But his friendliness easily shifts to casual cruelty; he is defensive, prickly.

Possibly, Anderson knew that Max Fischer could never be improved upon, Jason Schwartzman embodying the giddy, overpowering desires of a teenager, flushed with confidence, but strikingly brittle, determined and focused to the point of obnoxiousness. This is behavior that is only permissible for a short span of time before you grow up, when the adults around you are still taken in by it. There was no reason to replicate Max Fischer, and anyway Anderson had a new project. Herman Blume also leaves an impression: a self-hating, self-made millionaire, fascinated by Max, and crippled with the rather embarrassing desire to be what Max is. In the process, Anderson ushered the current phase of Bill Murray’s career, that of the serious clown.

Anderson expanded this character in two films that solidified his indie status— the Glass Family-inspired The Royal Tenenbaums and the artist-pampering allegory The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. But Gene Hackman and Murray do not bring the same depth of character that Jason Schwartzman found in Max: Gene Hackman's mannered insensitivity orbits around Max's off-handed petulance. We are asked to have sympathy for each, yet both consciously and consistently undermine our sympathy. But Anderson’s audience, by this time, would rather have the almost three-dimensional characters instead of a James Caan's earthy, slap-you-on-the-back hustler in Bottle Rocket.

There is a strain of self-pity which both Royal (by saying he is dying), and Zissou (by bringing up his dead friend), have in common. Max Fischer has similar impulses, but spends it by climbing up Miss Cross's window and claiming he was hit by a car. The sensibility and context are at equilibrium to make it skirt the edge of the believable. Anderson realizes this disparity in his adult characters, and often plays it for laughs, as when someone makes fun of Zissou's earring at The Explorer’s Club, and Murray sits on the curb like a boy in a Norman Rockwell painting with his dog (here played by Owen Wilson), and says, “People say when someone says something like that about you, it means they're jealous. But it still hurts. It hurts bad.” But embittered, middle-aged men is not where Anderson's preoccupations lie.

Better Than Indie Porn

Is Wes Anderson trying to give you what you want? Or are these the things he loves to make, and you happen to dig them? How about a litany of your favorite songs cross-stitched in scenes of half-remembered pieces of yearning fantasies? Anderson certainly cues us to the coolness of making, which he couples with a necessity of collecting, which is kind of an adolescent habit— and it’s certainly something of a personal and sometimes solitary preoccupation.

This begs you, however, to scavenge the films and discard what you personally do not like. Mark Mothersbaugh's music is awesome; the way Seu Jorge is used is not. The New York Times Review of Books, with Eli Cash on the cover and holding two ends of a halved rattle snake is hilarious. Scenes can sometimes be built up without thematic or emotional reference to the rest of the film, or even the surrounding scenes, and just hang about like beautiful and useless decoration.

The opening of The Royal Tenenbaums is a case in point, which is such brazen grab for the emotions, trying to take hostage my most outrageous desires, and dislodging the Tenenbaum family history to the cutesy super-extended take of “Hey Jude” that you almost never want to end by the end. As a short film unto itself, it is perfect, but as an introduction to characters we must watch live and breathe, it is disconcerting.

There is a superficial comparison to be made between The Royal Tenenbaums and Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections: a parent’s wish to see his or her grown-up children under the family roof again. But whereas Enid Lambert wages a three-front war with each of her children to get them to come home, the Tenenbaum children, Chas, Margot, and Richie, come without being asked. The Royal Tenebaums is less a story of returning home than a parable about growing up in the first place, with the lost children moving in opposite directions. While the three are purportedly prodigies in their chosen paths (Chas, business; Margot, playwriting; and Richie, tennis-cum-drifting), it is not hard to extract them from their former lives. They seem not to really even have lives— only collections and interesting hobbies, which seemingly include being married and having children, none of which asks very much.

My Life and Bric-a-Brac

The idiosyncratic back stories and mythologies of The Royal Tenebaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou are largely absent in The Darjeeling Limited, and that restraint draws out the melancholy prevalent throughout the film. We are, for at least some of the film, brought out of the closed in spaces of Anderson's signature films and into the laconic open spaces that he introduced in Bottle Rocket. Francis, Peter, and Jack Whitman (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman), brothers who have not seen each other since the funeral of their father a year before, board a train in India to bond, and for what Francis hopes will be a “spiritual journey,” (and secretly to see their mother, who has abandoned their lives for religious work in India). In the first scenes their emotional and psychological baggage are played out in some of the funniest most sustained comic dialogue in any of Anderson's films, as the brothers reconnect after they meet on the train, pointing questions at each other that are only semi-relevant after the passage of a year, and creating mini-alliances against each other, only to break them once a character leaves the room. It is their collective obnoxious behavior that causes them to be ousted from the train and become entangled in the tragedy in an Indian village.

Anderson's decorative quality works well against the spaces in India, though he gambles that not enough people know or care about what India is really like. Adrien Brody is a nice addition to the film, less spastic and droopy eyed. Owen Wilson does what he does, again very much like his character in Bottle Rocket, a film that he basically ran with on his shoulders. This at least demonstrates Anderson's growth as a filmmaker in that he could now put such a performance up against the mix of others. Schwartzman, while he helped write the movie (along with Anderson and Roman Coppola) fares least well here. That he has more back story than the others (not to mention the short film Hotel Chevalier) brings to attention his lack of presence around Brody and Wilson. While he sits brooding, one can only wonder why he’s not wearing shoes.

The new film, along with its ancillary, makes us scrutinize Anderson's discomfort with sex. There are different ways in which this can present itself in films, by exploiting it, or gawking over it. Anderson chooses to not show it. Miss Cross embarrasses Max out of her classroom by suggesting a hand job. Love in his films tends to be is unrequited (just as Richie Tenenbaum loves his sister). The reasonably frank sex scene in The Darjeeling Limited between Schwartzman and Rita, the steward's wife, seems forced, and is slightly squeamish. In Hotel Chevalier, when you see the bruises on Natalie Portman's body, you assume that she just ran into a lot of door knobs.

How well actresses fare in Anderson’s films varies widely because he has no intentions or motivations for them. That same hollow core which makes Paltrow's Margot so vacuous, and Anne-Marie (Robyn Cohen), the only permanent member of Zissou's crew to abandon ship, so suddenly changeable, is what makes Anjelica Huston as Patricia Whitman so off-handedly chilly. Since Anderson does not allow himself to indulge in his bitter old-man shtick, we see Huston's character benignly and unknowably selfish.

While he is uninterested in certain aspects, he can also be completely ignorant of others. Anderson will fuss over scenes, but he often does not understand the implications of them for the structure of his films. The Indian funeral in The Darjeeling Limited has gotten a lot of attention as racially offensive, although much of it is more of a backlash generated by growing discomfort with ethnic characters in his films. That the scene is completely unnecessarily except that the continued enlightenment of the brothers Whitman is not debatable; nor is that fact that Anderson's almost anthropological interest in the Indian village's grief makes one a little queasy. It was too much, but not manipulative, which is a more dangerous factor in racist films.

Films do not have to fortify against all subjects of gravity, but the limits of Anderson's talent are revealed, not by the lack of verisimilitude, but in where his lack of emotional commitment appears. The immense fakery of Captain Zissou's gun fight with the pirates invading his ship comes out of nowhere and further flattens what is already a children's picture book with some toplessness. This might be why it is so discomforting having Owen Wilson's character in The Darjeeling Limited reveal his suicide attempt in light of recent events of his life. In the hands of directors as varied as Spielberg to Fassbinder such an event could take on greater emotional resonance. Not so with Anderson, whose characterizations make us shrink away from that much reality.

If there is something that Anderson reminds us, it is that films are created out of the raw assemblage of parts. Hotel Chevalier is put together like a toy. Goddard deconstructed films with politics in mind, which makes it so ironic that the scene (it should be called a scene as opposed to a short film), has Portman's character visiting Jack Whitman in a French hotel room that is derived from the most chic details of French New Wave. Do I fault Natalie Portman for not being enough like Seberg or even her successor Faye Wong in Chungking Express? I think not if we are constantly reminded of something else. Portman's bored voice, along with the lack of chemistry with Jason Schwartzman, is like the self-fulfilling prophesy of Anderson— it turns into kids wearing their parents' clothes.

Dan Magers