When I was an even younger man years ago I stumbled onto a movie by a director named Wes Anderson. The film was named Rushmore, and it came out in 1998, although I saw it a couple of years after its release. The movie had a large impact on my life, as I was in high school at the time and therefore related to the tale of a young man who lusts after a gorgeous teacher at his school. This was also one of my first experiences with Bill Murray, who at the time I only knew of through comedic works such as Groundhog’s Day and later on Ghostbusters and Caddeyshack, among other famous movies that he’s been a star of.
Rushmore though witnessed Murray showing a different side, a dramatic and tragic aspect of his acting that most, perhaps even himself included, didn’t know he was capable of doing. However the film’s star is fresh-faced, pimples and braces included, Jason Schwartzman, who became famous and who’s character Max Fischer is one of those Anderson character types that have become typical of his films. Only after seeing Rushmore did I finally watch Bottle Rocket, which was his first movie, and thus like some of his films I went forwards first and then backwards, then forwards again.
Although many of his films are non-linear, Anderson primarily chooses to divide many of his films into book chapters, something that Quentin Tarentino has also done along with many other famous directors. To me Bottle Rocket was a rather fine debut, a first film that I eagerly revisited after purchasing it on Criterion a couple of years back. Own Wilson and Luke Wilson may have slummed it through some awful movies in their time, but their work with Anderson has been nothing but excellent and Own has properly assisted him at times in the writing and screenplay departments.
Although quite raw due to being Anderson’s earliest work, Bottle Rocket properly establishes many of his themes and showcases also his ability to expertly work in classic rock populated soundtracks. It’s also one of the handful of movies of his that is set in the present, although even in his modern-day films there are old devices and mediations upon the effects time has on us all.
Which brings me to The Royal Tenenbaums, one of his masterpieces. Gene Hackman is the centerpiece of a movie about a family that crumbles apart only to slowly piece itself back together. Anjelica Huston is marvelous as Royal’s poor wife, a strong woman who has put up with Royal’s lies and bumbling for far too long. I’m not sure which movie sports the better Luke Wilson performance: Bottle Rocket or Tenenbaums, yet he is excellent in both films. By this point Anderson had mastered the art of bringing together amazing and rather huge casts, as this film has everyone in it from Danny Glover to Ben Stiller-two actors by the way that I wish had been in another of his films.
In Tenenbaums Anderson also reveals his obsession and mediation upon wealth and power, ambition and fame, family and problems lurking beneath the surface. Class is an important aspect of all of his movies, and standing both social and imagined is noted by the characters in his films. Yet his next two movies take the viewer even further down his own special version of the rabbit hole, peering into new avenues and enlarging his own universe.
Some days I regard The Life Aquatic as his best film, other times I think its Rushmore. Featuring arguably Bill Muarry’s best performance (out of the ones I’ve seen, anyways) and also featuring the wonderful Willem Dafoe and the properly grumpy Michael Gambon, among many distinguished others, The Life Aquatic is Anderson taking his drama-comedy style and adding action/adventure to the mix. Steve Zissou, the film’s tragic protagonist, is wary and put upon, having sadly become a punch line even among his own people. The quest to destroy a shark is really Zissou having one last grand voyage before he is forced to hang it up for good, done in by time, lack of funding, and a diminished ability to create anything worthy of note.
This is Anderson going meta, and in the process the fact that it has a rotten rating under 60% on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomotemeter is fitting and ironic considering what The Life Aquatic is about. I remember Roger Ebert’s thumbs down review and after seeing this movie I think most of those critics missed the point, or they got the point and didn’t like it. I love this movie: its one of his funniest, most entertaining, and delightful films.
Which brings me to a movie that at first I was not a huge fan of at first, yet a recent second viewing thanks to Criterion caused me to re-evaluate my opinion: The Darjeeling Limited is a difficult movie to consume and examine, particularly since I cannot thankfully relate to losing a parent. However the magnificent trio of Adrian Brody, Own Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman (naturally like all self-styled auteurs Anderson uses the same people in most of his movies) make this film a rather very good, almost near great, picture, one that I enjoy. At the same time I think its one of his lesser works, although I do love the soundtrack and the ending is rather fitting. Out of all of Anderson’s movies I feel this one is dead set on moving on from the past and striving toward the future, which is interesting considering the next film he chose to make.
Even though I think its his weakest film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is still really good and quite enjoyable. Considering how quirky and weird many of his movies are I’m a little surprised that Anderson did not direct an animated movie sooner; I suspect given the right material he will make another one in the future. I loved George Clooney and Meryl Streep in this, as they work well together and form the movie’s emotional center. Also this film has one of Anderson’s best soundtracks, which adds to the movie’s mood and underlines the brilliant animation-I loved the waterfall shot, which was beyond gorgeous.
Unlike The Darjeeling Limited though this movie is more about not being able to escape your past, as Clooney’s Mr. Fox gives in to his base desires and endangers his clan and friends in the process. I like that at this point Anderson uses largely the same actors not so much because he thinks he is an auteur but also because by this point in Anderson’s career this group works incredibly well together. Oh and Clooney and Bill Murray’s interactions in this movie are my favorite parts. “Are you cussing with me?” This is also the first Anderson movie I was able to see in theaters, and it was a delightful experience.
After two lesser movies I thought that Anderson was losing his touch, so when he created Moonrise Kingdom and it was a truly marvelous thing of beauty to watch I was revealed that he was back in a manner of speaking. Unlike his other films he centers this primarily around kids, with the adults taking a backstage. The aptly named Sam and Suzy are running away, embracing their own destiny having fallen in love over the course of a warm New England summer. With the adults in pursuit, the two kids end up going through an outlandish and comedic adventure that is thrilling and engaging. This film is also the Anderson debuts of Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, and Harvey Keitel. The last act is the most action packed out of any of Anderson’s movies save for The Life Aquatic and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the two young child actors Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are naturalistic in their performances. It’s a new favorite of mine.
Lastly, The Grand Budapest Hotel sports Ralph Fiennes in his first Anderson movie as M. Gustave, who is the hotel’s concierge and who becomes the mentor a young lobby boy named Zero. Combing elements of 1930s Hitchcock films with elements from his other films, The Grand Budapest Hotel is hilarious, tragic, and beautiful-everything that I’ve come to expect from an Anderson movie. I’m glad that I’ve seen the last three movies of his in theaters, as seeing them on the big screen adds something that watching them on my TV does not. I also think that Hotel has what is arguably his most gigantic and best cast, and I loved F. Murray Abraham as the film’s narrator. Also this is probably the most bittersweet out of all of Anderson’s movies, and thus achieves an odd sort of grand status.
Despite other modern directors being better than Mr. Wes Anderson, I consider him to be one of the finest American auteurs-a true artist in the sense of the word. His movies are entertaining, funny, never boring, and rather colorful. I love the color schemes he chooses for his movies, and his style is rather distinctive. It is interesting how despite never experiencing great awards success his films are mostly well reviewed, which suggests that the Academy either doesn’t understand his work or they fail to appreciate it. Too bad, although many great Hollywood performers over the years have failed to capture a little golden man. When Anderson retires the film world will be a little more empty, and I hope that I never witness the day when he makes a bad or dull film.