Archive for the ‘wes anderson’ category

The French Dispatch

January 16, 2022

french dispatch

Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is that rarity, a disappointment that I feel I need to see again. By now, we all know how polarizing Anderson’s dollhouse movies tend to be. They’re immaculately designed, obsessively symmetrical; they’re boxes within boxes, each packed in a ruthlessly tidy fashion. But generally the stories have a strong throughline, a sturdy narrative arrow with some emotional resonance. The French Dispatch feels like it came out of the bottom drawer of Anderson’s desk. It’s a trio of tales, bracketed by front and end matter; it’s about journalists writing about artists, or at least about people who express themselves in some way — through painting, manifesto, food.

One of the segments, the one about the manifesto, I couldn’t tell you much about. You see what I mean when I say I need to watch it again. The French Dispatch is about a titular newspaper — the film’s full title is The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun — that reports on happenings in the French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé for the enjoyment, I guess, of the millions of Francophiles in Kansas. The newspaper is inspired by The New Yorker, particularly the magazine’s self-regard as The Magazine. All the best writers write for the French Dispatch, and the paper’s editor (Bill Murray) keeps trying to whittle their pieces into shape. The writers all love and tolerate him. He dies early on — like so much else here, we’re not asked to feel one way or the other about it — and what we see is the contents of the final issue of the paper.

But none of it really took hold and commanded my attention. The first story involves an artist (Benicio del Toro) who is also serving a life sentence for murder. The second follows Dispatch reporter Frances McDormand as she gets caught up in a student protest and its players. The last has to do with the kidnapping of a little boy and a police officer who’s also a chef — most of the characters have different facets to them. Technically, the filmmaking is gorgeous, with alternating black-and-white or color photography by Robert Yeoman in two different aspect ratios. It’s all very cleverly worked out. The problem is a pit that Anderson has been edging towards for a few movies now, and in The French Dispatch he topples right into it — there are just too damn many characters.

At this point, being in a Wes Anderson movie must be a terrific feather in an actor’s cap, and a lot of them come work with him over and over. But nothing in this movie will show you why. The teeming mass of actors here rarely get a moment to give us a reason to care about them; people like Edward Norton and Elisabeth Moss and Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe pass through, hardly even getting any lines. (The bulk of the movie is narrated by the stories’ writers anyway, further limiting the characters’ opportunity to speak for themselves.) Anderson veteran Saoirse Ronan turns up as a character credited only as “Junkie/Showgirl #1.” The impression you get is that Wes Anderson has joined the elite cadre of directors who can compel a four-time Oscar nominee to play Junkie/Showgirl #1. Well, good for him. Not so good for us, or for Saoirse Ronan.

And yet … I have thoroughly enjoyed each of Anderson’s prior films, so I’m willing to give The French Dispatch the benefit of the doubt; a second viewing, knowing what it is going into it, may not be amiss. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the movie doesn’t drill down and tell one particular person’s story. Maybe the movie is about storytelling itself, about who tells stories and who hears or reads them. The main character is the Dispatch. The style of the film is the style of the writers. The writers are self-centered to a degree that they make the stories about them — they think they have to make the stories worthy of being told by them. Running through the film is a sneaky little critique of the whole New Yorker magazine-of-record aesthetic and ethos. Like all of Anderson’s films, it’s both nostalgic and timeless. It didn’t stick to me — this time — but I wouldn’t dream of discouraging anyone, especially Anderson followers, from seeing it. Just know what you’re in for.

Isle of Dogs

July 15, 2018

isleofdogsWes Anderson’s stop-motion fantasy Isle of Dogs supposedly unfolds in a futuristic Japan, but it really takes place in one of the many neat boxes in Anderson’s head. And yet Anderson’s characters always yearn to escape their boxes. In Isle of Dogs, the mayor of the fictitious Megasaki City commands that all dogs, supposedly infected with a species-jumping flu, be shipped off to Trash Island and mostly left to fend for themselves. The story begins when the mayor’s 12-year-old ward, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), flies a rickety plane over to the island to find and rescue his “bodyguard dog” Spots (Liev Schreiber). Atari encounters a pack of dogs who agree, mostly, to help him find Spots.

Like Anderson’s maiden voyage in stop-motion, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs owes itself to a great many craftspeople besides Anderson, chief among them animation director Mark Waring, who worked on Fantastic Mr. Fox and a couple of Tim Burton’s stop-mo projects. Anderson also shares this story’s credit with frequent collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman as well as Kunichi Nomura (voice of the dog-hating mayor). Yet the movie always feels utterly Anderson. Some read his style as rigid or controlling, which it can be, but again, thematically the films are most often about breaking out of the confines of one’s situation, family, location; essentially, Anderson’s characters rebel against him.

At this point, when Anderson does stop-motion, it’s the purest expression of what he strives to do in live-action, screamingly symmetrical, not a hair out of place, etc. In stop-motion, even the hair out of place is out of place for an aesthetic reason; the use of real fur in stop-motion is usually a no-no because it won’t stay reliably still and the eye can catch it moving from frame to frame, but Anderson loves that effect, so the characters are covered in fur. Thus: chaos inside obsessive order. When the dogs in Isle of Dogs get in scraps, they kick up cartoonish dust clouds rendered in cotton. Steam coming out of the nostrils of an angry man looks like string. Using such a clunky, analog style calls attention to the creative workarounds and inventions, but here it also seems like a sly wink at the tech-obsessed entertainment of Japan.

Anderson corrals the usual large cast, though among the dogs, only Bryan Cranston’s battle-weary stray Chief and Jeff Goldblum’s gossip-loving Duke are especially individualized. Nobody in the film really pulls ahead to grab the golden ring as the dominant hero — it seems a team effort, with the American foreign exchange student voiced by Greta Gerwig only one of several components in the campaign to free and restore the dogs. (As for charges of cultural appropriation leveled against the movie, I’m partial to Moeko Fujii’s New Yorker defense enumerating various details in the writing or sight gags comprehensible and enjoyable only to Japanese viewers.) The film is also, by virtue of existing in Anderson’s astringent, deadpan reality, the rare dog movie without a drop of maudlin dead-dog bathos. Our young hero buries what he thinks is his beloved dog and moves on.

Isle of Dogs started filming a month before the 2016 election (and was in pre-production long before that), so its echoes of the world in which we now find ourselves — a harmless, loyal population being expelled from a country while politicians lie about them — are coincidental. And Anderson is never much concerned with current affairs. But in his world, two packs of starving dogs at least stop to wonder whether a package of rancid food is worth fighting over, and when the mayor makes a gruff anti-dog statement, he at least gives the floor to a rebuttal. I wouldn’t mind living in a Wes Anderson film: The people there, even the dogs, seem more rational and polite than what we’ve got here. Perhaps that means all of Anderson’s films, even the ones without talking animals, qualify as fantasies.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

April 6, 2014

20140406-211249.jpgIn The Grand Budapest Hotel, director Wes Anderson makes no pretense whatsoever to reality. Anderson’s films, of course, have all been fanciful and fantastic, but this one ensconces itself in a fictional European country whose characters all speak in different accents, the natural accents of the actors playing them. When Edward Norton turns up as a fascist military inspector named Henckels, he doesn’t bother sounding like a fascist military inspector named Henckels; he just sounds American, and Ralph Fiennes, as a hotel concierge known as M. Gustave H., uses his native English tones. This prepares us to view The Grand Budapest Hotel as a fable told via actors playing dress-up. It’s consciously artificial in a way that Anderson’s films haven’t been before, and that’s really saying something.

The key to the movie, for me, is its elaborate matryoshka structure. The story is told to us by The Author (Tom Wilkinson as an older man, Jude Law as his younger self), who talks about the time he was told a story by the elderly Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) about the time he, as a young man (Tony Revolori), worked as a lobby boy in the Grand Budapest Hotel for Gustave. The Author tells this story in a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel, read in the present day by a girl standing before a monument of The Author. We are seeing all this in a movie called The Grand Budapest Hotel, making us the audience to a reader to an author listening to a storyteller. What’s more, Anderson evokes each era by using a different aspect ratio — in 1968 the frame is enormously wide, in 1932 it’s a demure square.

The events surrounding the story — Nazism encroaching like a bloodstain on a map — suggest that Anderson is boxing off the historical nightmare the way his compartmentalized, symmetrical compositions box off everything else. Just outside the colorful wackiness in the frame, shadows lie. The plot itself, sectioned off by all the narrative scaffolding, is almost inconsequential: a rich matron of the hotel (Tilda Swinton) has been murdered, leaving a priceless painting to Gustave in her will, and the police nab Gustave for the crime. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, the movie isn’t about this plot; it’s about how we use stories to keep thorny emotions in manageable spaces. People die, and the deaths aren’t felt, at least not in the story as it is told. A major character’s great love dies offscreen, her fate covered by a couple of lines of narration. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a callous work, but it’s about packing painful experience in storage.

On the most basic level, the movie is visually sumptuous, with Anderson’s fizzy deadpan comedy ladled over the immaculate design. The elegance of the look and sound is broken every so often by salty language, glimpses of surreptitious sex, even some bloodshed, all of which are relatively scarce in Andersonworld. When the jailed Gustave takes a sip of water and sets the glass down, we see a little cloud of red swirling in it. That’s about all the reality of prison brutality that Anderson wants to, or needs to, show us. Yet severed body parts and a breathless chase between a skier and a sled are also on the menu. There may be several floors of story here, but the overstory is a movie — the movie is the hotel itself, a story for each room. So Anderson gives us movie-ish thrills and a mystery of the sort we’ve seen umpteen times.

Of all the divertissements, I think what I enjoyed most was the implication that every great hotel back in the glory days of hotels was distinct only in design. A passage titled “The Society of the Crossed Keys” gives us a montage of concierges responding identically to a crisis, saying “Take over” to their right-hand men no matter what they’re doing. For all the moneyed prestige and pride of their architecture, functionally they might as well all be in the same motel franchise. This, of course, is never true of Wes Anderson’s films, which always manage to be utterly unlike anything else surrounding them in adjoining theaters. As for this one, it’s almost as if Anderson is addressing the detractors of his hermetic-dollhouse style and saying that wildness and weirdness are possible inside the dollhouse, and darkness outside.

Moonrise Kingdom

July 29, 2012

Since at least Rushmore, Wes Anderson has not made movies so much as storybooks in motion, and Moonrise Kingdom may be his purest storybook yet. The movie teems with characters yet is modestly scaled; like Anderson’s previous film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, it doesn’t employ the super-wide compositions that had been Anderson’s trademark. It looks boxier, homier, warmer. Everything is at a slight, sly remove, indicating that this isn’t serious business — it’s storytime, nobody’s in real danger, and things will end as they should. Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola construct a story about true love, and because that love is between two 12-year-olds, it’s not complicated, which it usually is in Anderson’s films — it’s innocent, optimistic, almost anarchic. These kids aren’t tragic lovers, though; we feel that they’re in benevolent hands.

Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) ditches his Khaki Scout troop to be with Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who likewise runs away from home. They meet in a field and take off for the woods, pursued by various worried adults: policeman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who keeps the order on the island of New Penzance; Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton); and Suzy’s parents, Walt and Linda (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). There is some complicated love here: Captain Sharp and Linda are uneasily ending an affair. But they don’t see themselves in Sam and Suzy, which is a relief — Anderson isn’t that obvious. The adults just want the kids to be safe back home — although Sam, an orphan whose most recent foster family has decided not to invite him back, doesn’t really have a home.

Sam and Suzy are described as “disturbed children,” though they may simply be responding to their environments. Suzy’s parents are troubled (and she has three brothers to contend with); Sam’s parents are dead. Moonrise Kingdom is set in 1965, when the generation impacted by Dr. Spock had kids of their own and sought to understand them via pop psychology. As the movie presents it, though, it’s simple: Sam and Suzy are unhappy alone and happy with each other. They sit in a tent while Suzy reads aloud from various storybooks; they dance on a beach and have their first kiss. Their journey is quietly idyllic, and the young actors play the kids deadpan enough that they’re never insufferable. Anderson never oversells the beauty; his regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman provides his usual immaculate symmetrical compositions, with characters always framed dead center, surrounded by the retro tackiness of the mid-’60s.

Moonrise Kingdom works up to an apocalypse of sorts — a hurricane approaching New Penzance. Its arrival coincides with that of a lady from Social Services (Tilda Swinton), amusingly named only Social Services, who wants to put Sam in an orphanage. Social Services is this storybook’s villain, worshiping rules and bureaucracy, ready to ruin Sam’s life without even having met him. Swinton is in let’s-have-fun mode here, and the others in the cast — especially Willis and Norton — seem relieved to be a part of something with some substance, something childlike but not childish. Like Spike Jonze’ Where the Wild Things Are, the film is about kids but is not really a kids’ movie.

In the summer of big, expensive superhero flicks, Moonrise Kingdom evokes awe, wonder and the magic of escapism in a much smaller and more precious way. It does Wes Anderson good to get outside: filming around Narragansett Bay, he inhales some fresh air and gets out of the rectangular confines of his past work. If Anderson’s films have been about anything, it’s the importance of breaking out of damaging routines: unhappy adults come to a crossroads and decide a change is needed. Here, in the first scenes, we see what it might be like to grow up inside a Wes Anderson film. Like their earlier adult counterparts, the kids grow to embrace mess, feeling, life outside the manicured interiors. They also have their whole lives ahead of them, which makes this Anderson’s most honestly hopeful work yet.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

November 29, 2009

Moreso even than Where the Wild Things Are, Wes Anderson’s stop-motion whimsy Fantastic Mr. Fox plays like an art film more for adults than for kids (not to say that kids won’t also enjoy it). We may be watching talking foxes and badgers, but they have very grown-up issues. Mr. Fox (raffishly voiced by George Clooney) used to steal chickens for a living; he was a pro at it, and he loved it. But after his wife (Meryl Streep) became pregnant, he swore to go legit as a newspaper columnist. Fox’s disreputable past, though, keeps calling to him, and soon enough he lapses back into a life of crime, to the chagrin of three local farmers who’ll stop at nothing to kill Fox and his associates.

Like every other Wes Anderson film, Fantastic Mr. Fox is about looking back wistfully on one’s youth, one’s glory days, pre-responsibilities, when things weren’t as complicated. Really, I get the sense that Anderson has been working his way up to stop-motion: all his films unfold in a rigorously controlled, hermetic universe, and it’s only a short step to filming a miniature world where literally nothing happens that isn’t physically manipulated frame by frame. (Anderson is credited as the sole director, and certainly Fox is thematically of a piece with his other work, but let’s not forget animation director Mark Gustafson and his army of animators, without whom the movie would remain confined to Anderson’s sketchbook.)

The throughline is simple: Fox wants food and safety for himself and his community — as simple as a Bugs Bunny short, really. So we’re pulled right in, and as the saying goes, fairly soon we forget we’re watching stop-motion, even though the technique calls attention to itself. The ads are calling Fox “groundbreaking,” though I think what that means is that Anderson — rather than relying on slick CGI like everyone else — has chosen a consciously old-school style, one that doesn’t cheat or hide the manipulation; the animals are designed with real fur, usually a no-no in stop-motion because you can’t control its movement from frame to frame. So there is some wildness here after all. The style, like the theme, is poised gracefully between order and chaos.

The TV commercials, of course, emphasize the goofy kid-pleasing moments, but most of Fox is gratifyingly mellow. The voice actors, including Anderson mainstays Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman, speak to each other as if they were in a quirky adult comedy; nobody falsely projects, sweatily calling out to the back row of inattentive children. The color scheme is radiantly autumnal, not the usual banging-together of discordant hues that kiddie-flick animators think will hook the eye. The compositions are classic Anderson, painstakingly symmetrical. The soundtrack is Anderson’s typical callback to ‘60s tunes, including the Beach Boys (used surprisingly unobtrusively) and, at one point of tension, the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” That song, the last one the Stones played at the fateful Altamont concert, kicked up a bit of fuss in its day for its lyrics espousing revolution, and now it graces a children’s film produced by 20th Century-Fox. I can see the angry letter-writing campaign and boycotts from here. Though, again, it isn’t really a children’s film — but tell that to Glenn Beck and his acolytes.

The Darjeeling Limited

September 29, 2007

Enlightenment will elude you when you’re looking for it, and find you when you’re not. That’s a possible theme of The Darjeeling Limited, the new exercise in melancholia from Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums). The movie unfolds in the same precisely compartmentalized place as Anderson’s other films — in his head, really. Disappointed people slouch in the dead center of symmetrical compositions while the soundtrack ushers in mournful French singers or Kinks B-sides. It’s a remarkably consistent universe, and Anderson — happily for his fans, unhappily for his detractors — shows no signs of wanting to leave it. Or does he?

Head and face swathed in bandages from a suicide attempt (an unintended tabloid irony), Owen Wilson’s Francis Whitman has called his younger brothers Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) to join him in India for a train trip. They haven’t spoken since their father’s funeral a year ago, and Francis, who issues commands in the passive-aggressive form of suggestions (“Can we agree on that?” is his familiar refrain; “No” is not an optional response), seems to think only a ride on the Darjeeling Limited will clear their heads and bring them together. That, and frequent touristy stops to sample Indian rituals and make themselves feel spiritually connected.

Unfortunately for Francis’ well-laid plans (his laminated itineraries recalling Dignan’s “75-year plan” in Anderson and Wilson’s debut Bottle Rocket), this is a Wes Anderson film, where disconnection prevails. This is the second Anderson movie in a row (after The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) in which people are shoehorned together on transportation while never feeling more isolated. Jack, nursing his hurt over his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman, who appears in the film’s short prelude Hotel Chevalier), throws himself into a fling with comely stewardess Rita (Amara Karan). Peter wears his father’s prescription glasses even though they give him headaches. All three brothers dose themselves out of unhappiness with various Indian anodynes.

The Darjeeling Limited has the rambling, random quality of life; India is an unpredictable place where real pain coexists with deep pleasure, and the brothers Whitman (one vowel away from “Whiteman”) do their best to laminate it and impose their will on it. The folly of this is neatly encapsulated in an anecdote when Peter buys a cobra, which escapes its skull-and-crossbones box. You can’t put India in a box, and for the first time, Anderson’s tight rectangular compositions seem insufficient to take it all in. The movie finds Anderson straining to peel away his mannerisms and respond to a world outside the ones he usually so meticulously designs. (The train is fictional, but is similar to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.) Written by Anderson along with Schwartzman and his cousin Roman Coppola, the script drifts into tragedy, from which the brothers seem to learn nothing because they treat it as something to be learned from — again, imposing design on chaos — rather than something real to be responded to honestly. Only during a late-inning encounter in which nothing much happens do the brothers seem to get the true point of their journey.

Much like Jack, who compulsively puts Peter Sarstedt on his iPod to woo the objects of his desire and writes transparently autobiographical stories (“The characters are fictional,” he keeps protesting), Anderson has wanted to forge clean, crisp art out of the slop and hysteria of emotional life. The Darjeeling Limited — preceded as it is by Hotel Chevalier, perhaps his most rigidly formalist work ever — seems to point towards a brave new world for Anderson. The characters inhabit that same Anderson headspace I talked about earlier (the movie’s title doesn’t just refer to the train), but by the end they’ve cast that off along with the burdens of their past. It’s a beautiful film.5

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

December 10, 2004

Wes Anderson creates a highly stylized and peculiar world, which either works for you or it doesn’t. It works for me beautifully, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou deserves to take its place with Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) as a half-jocular, half-melancholy portrait of dreamers and losers. As Anderson’s career has grown and he’s been allowed more money to play with, his onscreen universe has gotten more lovingly, obsessively detailed; his movies seem to unfold in some alternate universe where Futura Bold is the dominant font and an exotic, nonexistent fish like the “rhinestone bluefin” is so taken for granted by the characters it’s used as bait.

By now, a Wes Anderson movie without Bill Murray (who has graced Anderson’s previous two films) seems unthinkable, and here he finally has the lead as Steve Zissou, underwater explorer. There was a time when Zissou’s short films about the mysteries of the deep were eagerly devoured by kids worldwide, who belonged to “Team Zissou” by way of an official Zissou Fan Club ring. Now Zissou is 52 and finds himself having to scrounge for funding, often at odds with pompous tycoon Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), who happens to be the ex of Zissou’s wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston). Zissou has a new and emotionally urgent mission: find and (possibly) kill the elusive jaguar shark that ate his old friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel) on Team Zissou’s last expedition.

Owen Wilson turns up as Ned, a Kentucky pilot who thinks Zissou might be his father. Ned was a Team Zissou fan as a kid, and still has his Fan Club ring; we’re left to imagine the bittersweet feelings of his mom, who once slept with Zissou thirty years ago, as she gave young Ned the money to send away for that ring. Wilson co-wrote all of Anderson’s films except this one (Noah Baumbach collaborated with Anderson here), and if the script is missing Wilson’s particular childlike touch, his presence as a drawling gentleman smitten with a visiting reporter (Cate Blanchett) makes up for it. His scenes with Murray resonate with the unspoken, and it’s a relief that there’s no manufactured tension over paternity — it’s never suggested that Ned is a phony out for Zissou’s money (what little he has left).

As always, Anderson goes in for precise symmetrical compositions, with people framed dead center between bookshelves or doorways. The artifice here is a little self-conscious — such as the cut-away views of Zissou’s elaborately furnished ship, the Belafonte — but never takes you out of the movie. Neither does animator Henry Selick’s work with the stop-motion sea creatures, clearly not meant to look photorealistic. At heart, The Life Aquatic is a cartoon inhabited by three-dimensional people with adult problems. There are the usual unaccountable touches that somehow feel right, like the Team Zissou member (Seu Jorge) who croons David Bowie songs in Portuguese — a restful sound — or the blue highlights in Anjelica Huston’s hair, or the three-legged dog left behind by some Filipino pirates, or Willem Dafoe as an inept German shipmate who loves Zissou like a father and resents the intrusion of (possibly) a real son.

The problem, as with Wes Anderson’s other films, is how to sell it to the masses (especially The Life Aquatic, which at $50 million is Anderson’s most pricey endeavor to date). The commercials emphasize Bill Murray’s deadpan wit and some broad humor, but moviegoers will find Murray playing a near-dislikable character, a blowhard too used to getting his own way to notice that not everyone shares his devotion to himself. And the humor here is bone-dry, without even the surefire sight gags of the otherwise rather glum Royal Tenenbaums. Yet Murray triumphs here by being true to Zissou’s melancholia, and so does Anderson. The Life Aquatic is an odd, entrancing creature that of course got overlooked at the crowded holiday multiplex and at awards ceremonies, but its appeal, I think, will be more timeless than that. 5

The Royal Tenenbaums

December 14, 2001

In his first three films — Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and now The Royal Tenenbaums — Wes Anderson has created a distinct and consistent world. The lackadaisical suburban thieves of Bottle Rocket might’ve gone to Rushmore Academy as kids, and Max Fischer as a pre-pubescent playwright might’ve put his work in competition with the equally precocious Margot Tenenbaum’s plays. There’s a buzz of strangeness about Anderson’s world; in its way, it’s as alien to us — and as precisely rendered — as the Middle-earth of The Fellowship of the Ring. This world has its own look and sound, with morosely defiant oldies on the soundtrack underlining the characters’ malaise or passion.

Anderson loves overachievers and underachievers — particularly people who manage to be both at once — and he’s got three of them here: the aforementioned Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), the adopted daughter of the clan, who peaked early as a playwright and now sulks in her tub for hours; Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller), a prodigious financial whiz overprotective of his two sons since the death of his wife; and Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson), a former tennis champ who had a meltdown on the court and thinks he’s in love with Margot, but that’s okay, since “we’re not related by blood.” Slippery ethics, but since patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) took every opportunity to remind everyone of Margot’s adopted status when introducing her, who can blame Richie?

Royal, the sort of affable bastard right up Hackman’s alley, has been estranged from his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) and children for years; one day he slinks back into the picture with the news that he’s dying. Giving himself six weeks to put things right between himself and his kids, Royal sets up a hospital room in his former house, followed in rapid succession by Chas, Richie, and Margot, who all move back into their old bedrooms, confronted daily with the surroundings of their childhood greatness. Hanging around for good measure is Richie’s friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson, who for the third time cowrote the script with Anderson), who “always wanted to be a Tenenbaum” but has settled for being a drug-addled novelist; he zones out during a TV interview, and he defends the failure of his first book with the standard artist’s line that it was too archaic for most people to understand.

Tenenbaums unfolds like a storybook tale, but this is Anderson’s most loosely plotted endeavor yet. Like Rushmore, it’s not so much about its story as about the moods and moments the story makes possible. Here, for instance, is Margot’s rumpled neurologist husband Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray, swathed in a foam of beard) tapping sadly on a window to get her attention. Or family financial advisor Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) moving in tentatively to kiss Etheline, while she grins girlishly in anticipation, unearthing old feelings of desire and being desired just as she’d unearthed a human skeleton a few minutes before. Or a confrontation between Chas and Royal in a closet, surrounded by shelves weighed down with ancient board games, underlining the childishness of both men. Or the way all printed material we see in the movie is in the same blocky all-caps Futura font used for the title on the poster art, even the “walk/don’t walk” signs and the logos on hospital gowns — in this universe text is purely utilitarian, and the book covers we see are usually good for a laugh. Or the predictably eclectic soundtrack, wherein the Velvet Underground and the Ramones rub elbows with Mark Mothersbaugh’s otherworldly bells and organs and the beautifully apt use of “Christmas Time Is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas (I have to love a director so obsessed with Peanuts that he made Max Fischer’s dad a barber, just like Charlie Brown’s dad). Or Robert Yeoman’s pristine, rigidly symmetrical widescreen compositions, which give the characters ample space to mope in solitude — vast dead air on either side of them, and vertically squashed; the horizontal proscenium of the movie becomes an oppressive character in itself.

Sound like a downer? Not really — or not if you’re attuned to Anderson’s method of keeping heartbreak at a slight remove. For him, the small moment takes care of the large emotions, and we project the rest. Ben Stiller gives a rather antagonistic performance with the tiniest bits of shading (his reading of a key line near the end brings his character nicely into focus); Gwyneth Paltrow stares at everything as if from beyond the grave, a blonde goth princess who never looks so pained as when she can’t help smiling at something. The movie doesn’t overflow with false personality; character is in the design, like the lonely-looking yellow tent in the middle of a vast room. Richie sleeps in the tent, listening to the Rolling Stones on the same breed of chunky gray record player we all remember from grade school. Now and then a “dalmatian mouse” — Chas’s invention — scampers into the frame, as if blotted with memories, or symbolic of memories blotted out. Why, we might ask, did Royal emphasize Margot’s adopted status at every opportunity? Why was he ejected from his home (the movie never says)? Is Richie’s affection for Margot a case of like-father-like-son? Underneath the film’s ornate but terse facade might be a churning tangle of backstories barely hinted at.

Gene Hackman presides over all this like a dissipated King Lear, only he doesn’t demand expressions of love from his three children; he’ll make do with expressions of non-hatred. The Royal Tenenbaums extends or plays with themes explored in Rushmore: in both, a father looks quizzically at offspring he can’t imagine he could have sired, and a protagonist is an immature liar and often dislikable, but somehow, despite himself, lovable. Tenenbaums can also be considered a loose sequel to Rushmore, in that the three past-their-prime wunderkinder could be Max Fischer fifteen years on.

If you didn’t float happily in the world of Rushmore, this movie’s mix of quirky humor and deadpan anguish won’t do it for you (I noted a number of walkouts at the screening I attended). Anderson specializes in gentle bipolar comedy-tragedies: Tenenbaums may be the most depressive movie ever to be painted in shades of red, yellow, and pink. 5


December 11, 1998

“I can safely say I’ve never met anyone like you before,” says a fetching young teacher to Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), the 15-year-old hero of Rushmore. Nor is anyone likely to meet anyone like Max in real life, and very seldom at the movies. As Rushmore begins, Max is a seriously overachieving student at Rushmore Academy, where he compensates for his stereotypically nerdy looks (thick-framed glasses, tinsel teeth) by joining and/or founding just about every organization at school. He devotes himself to writing and directing school plays with the zeal of a young Welles or Spielberg, putting on spectacular shows everyone will talk about for years. Meanwhile, he’s flunking all his classes. He’s a bright kid — some would say ingenious — but grades aren’t important to Max; for him, Rushmore is both his playpen and his canvas. Everything he does is meant to leave the indelible mark of Max Fischer.

Is Max insufferable? Sure, sometimes — and one of the surprises of Rushmore, a sort of cross between Amadeus and The Graduate, is that Max’s outsize ambition is often shown up for the narcissism it is. He’s a kid. He means well, but he also rolls right over everybody’s toes; he’s so focused on achievement he seems monomaniacal at times. Director Wes Anderson, who also wrote the script with Owen Wilson (this is their second film, after 1996’s Bottle Rocket), risks alienating us: Max is obviously brilliant and just as obviously a case of arrested development, a boy who lost his mom at an early age and has thrown himself into distractions ever since. The movie is about what happens when he collides with another case of arrested development — tycoon Herman Blume (Bill Murray), who befriends this gangly kindred spirit but soon competes with Max for the affections of the aforementioned teacher, Miss Cross (Olivia Williams).

Wes Anderson has a distinctive and unstable style; he likes the sound of different personalities clashing, different moods bumping together. In Bottle Rocket, a trio of suburban goofballs fancied themselves aspiring criminals; the story took the form of a road movie, and just when you thought the plot might tighten and thicken, it got slack and digressive (and vice versa). Rushmore is a much more successful mood-swing comedy, with moments of classic slapstick rubbing elbows with moments of painful candor. As in so many films about boy dreamers of all ages, the woman is the pinprick of reality that pops the balloon of male fantasy. Deflecting Max’s advances, swiftly bored with Herman, Miss Cross is the sanest voice in the movie, yet she, too, has her false ideal; she takes up with a hunky intern (Luke Wilson) for physical comfort but can’t help comparing every man to her late husband, whose memory she just about fetishizes.

Everyone is talking about Bill Murray, as if he’d never given a real performance before. Actually, he’s been building a solid rep as a born-again character actor and supporting player in films like Ed Wood and Wild Things, but it’s fair to say that Herman Blume is his first fully mature role (ironic, given Herman’s lapses of golf-ball-tossing, bicycle-wrecking childishness). The vaguely depressed father of twin sons who have more brawn than brains, Herman sees Max as both the smart son he never had and a younger, not-yet-disillusioned version of himself. Murray’s performance is mostly subdued, with flashes of adolescent contempt popping out like a switchblade (he has a hilarious boozy scene in a hospital elevator); Anderson and Wilson have written him a great role, and he brings it home effortlessly.

This is not to slight Jason Schwartzman, a rookie actor who more than holds his own with Murray, or Olivia Williams, captivating us even at her most brutally honest. Nor should we overlook Wes Anderson’s stylized brand of comedy (his main theme so far seems to be the folly of ambition), his pitch-perfect selection of oldies that heighten each scene, his odd use of widescreen for this small-scale teen movie, as if it were an epic on a par with one of Max’s excessive plays — it’s as if Max wouldn’t settle for anything less than CinemaScope. Rushmore is an ode to creative wunderkinder, who can be immature pains in the ass (just ask anyone who worked with Welles or Spielberg way back in the day); most movies wouldn’t exist without them, but they don’t exist in most movies.5