“All memory of the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums had been erased by two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster.”
It’s been nearly two decades of mulling in the absurdity and melancholy plaguing dysfunctional personalities and Wes Anderson’s brilliance as a home-grown writer-director steadily cements itself into the collective memory of film history. When it comes to specializing in a craft with a very distinct style, artists draw in a niche of ardent admirers along with the inherent flip-side of strong opposition. A nice way of saying: “either you love or hate him.” In accordance with this generalization, Anderson’s brand of filmmaking attracts its fair share of acclaim and criticism alike. Whether he tickles your fancy or not, it can’t be argued that Anderson certainly has a cinematic and storytelling style that’s all his own. Championing quirky stories about eccentric characters employing dry, deadpan humor to cope with ridiculous situations all framed with the recurring aesthetics of bold, bright colors and deliberate cinematography, Anderson’s films provide high entertainment value with storybook visuals. The ironic, absurd nature of the comedy surrounding the flawed and confused characters often manifests itself in abrupt, unexpected episodes of violence or tragedy, further pulling in or putting off audiences.
Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket (1996), marked the first of many career-spanning collaborations with college buddy and starring actor Owen Wilson, with whom he wrote the screenplay. The critically acclaimed comedy about the missteps of a trio of amateur criminals paved the way for the wildly successful offbeat coming-of-age comedy, Rushmore (1998). Wilson again shared writing credits for the original screenplay and the film introduced more future Anderson alumni with Jason Schwartzman’s acting debut and Bill Murray’s career comeback and status as an indie film staple. With The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Anderson’s (and Wilson’s) merits as a writer were finally acknowledged with the automatic confidence-booster of an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. His next two films, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), written with Noah Baumbach, and The Darjeeling Limited (2007), co-written with Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, both carried his distinct visual and thematic sensibilities, but were critically and commercially less successful than the proceeding two, amassing similar criticisms about his apparent lack of versatility as a filmmaker. (As with other cult followings, criticism isn’t enough to stop the panned films from becoming fan-favorites for some.) The next logical move for the eclectic director-writer was the visually delightful, smartly voiced, and sharply written (this time with Noah Baumbach) stop-motion animation adaptation of Roald Dalh’s beloved children’s book, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). The soiree into family-fare (his first non-R-rated picture) earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature and for Alexandre Desplat’s Original Score. Another Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay greeted Anderson–with Roman Coppola as co-writer–for the quirky story about young love, Moonrise Kingdom (2012), bolstering him to his highest level of success since Tenenbaums. In a pleasantly quick turnaround, his next feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is due for release in 2014 and features many new faces like Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, and Saoirse Ronan among his regulars, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson. The film marks Anderson’s first solo writing effort to date.
Some might call it the “one trick pony” syndrome to stick with a consistent aesthetic and narrative style, but some of the great modern auteurs in film (another favorite: Mr. Tarantino) often ride in the same rodeo time and time again and manage mostly high marks. Anderson himself has acknowledged this concern, asserting, “I want to try not to repeat myself. But then I seem to do it continuously in my films. It’s not something I make any effort to do. I just want to make films that are personal, but interesting to an audience. I feel I get criticized for style over substance, and for details that get in the way of the characters. But every decision I make is how to bring those characters forward.” Being so self-aware and self-assured in the types of characters, dialogue, and visual choices he makes sometimes gives the impression of pretentiousness or being overly contrived, but there’s nothing wrong with having a narrow, focused set of go-to skills and tricks. No one seemed to complain when Tarantino essentially used the same “skin” for his latest cinematic fixation with revenge flicks in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 & 2 (2003, 2004), Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012), with the latter two almost having interchangeable plotlines. Personally, I only complained on the latest attempt, unfortunately unable to excuse the too-blatant rehasing of Inglourious Basterds’ novel premise. In any case, the perceived strength of style shouldn’t diminish from the intended substance, even if it happens to be painted in the shapes and colors of the absurdity, irony, and melancholy, which can be very shapely and colorful behind Anderson’s lens.
In spite of the few nominations, Oscar has yet to reward Anderson for his writing merits, most recently dropping the ball at this year’s show. Moonrise Kingdom was somehow overlooked in the handful of categories it most definitely should have been in contention for, including Best Picture, Production Design, Costume Design and Original Score. Thankfully, its sole nomination came in one of its strongest categories for its highly original, cohesive, and entertaining screenplay, but, alas, the muddled, clunky Django Unchained script that took home the statue. (Those crazy movie gods…) Though he’s yet to hold a trophy of his own, Anderson holds the (scout’s) badge of honor of having most of his films released through exclusive Criterion Collection. Still waiting on The Life Aquatic Blu-ray, guys. In defense of his career, Anderson should emulate his feisty Rushmore hero, Max Fischer, who professed, “I saved Latin. What did you ever do?”
Which are your favorite Anderson screenplays?