From the very beginning of his career, Wes Anderson has claimed a style that is uniquely his own. His visuals alone immediately indicate his touch. He frames his shots in tight squares, with straight, blocky pans from character to character, creating a storybook style that’s used quite literally when a narrator reads from the “book” in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). In addition, the bright colors and eccentric clothes of all of his characters accentuate their greater inner eccentricities. Anderson has long been infatuated with socially maladjusted geniuses, especially young prodigies or former prodigies who are past their prime. Max Fischer, Steve Zissou, and most of the Tenenbaum family all have extraordinary talents but most often fail at leading normal lives. Romantic or family relations (or both of these, in the case of Richie and Margot Tenenbaum) provide their biggest fuck-ups. The soundtrack to the lives of his characters is always carefully picked, more often than not utilizing the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and other great bands from the 60s and 70s. Undoubtedly his most famous scene is set to “These Days” by Nico (1967).
Wes Anderson has specialized in romance of the star-crossed variety since his first film Bottle Rocket (1996). An expanded version of his short film, his first feature-length collaboration with Luke and Owen Wilson in addition to many other supporting players, sees two wannabe heist men become sidetracked when one finds unexpected love. The more passionate of the two for a life of crime, Dignan (Owen Wilson), constantly bickers with his supposed partner in crime, Anthony (Luke Wilson). They start off slowly, first robbing Anthony’s own house and then moving on to a small bookstore.
All of this is just the beginning of an intricate 75 year plan, which Dignan details in a journal. Their eventual riches are to come from a partnership with a landscaper/gangster named Mr. Henry (James Caan). Nothing goes exactly according to plan, as Anthony falls for a Spanish-speaking maid named Ines (Lumi Cavazos) at the hotel where they stay to remain off the radar. The relationship that quickly develops between Anthony and Ines is easily the highlight of the film. Although neither one is able to understand the other, they somehow manage to find a connection. This is probably the best way to characterize most of the relationships that develop in Anderson’s films: two people who should be turned away from each other by profound differences manage to make their love work.
This sort of relationship is at the forefront of Anderson’s next film Rushmore (1998). It also marks his first collaboration with Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray, who began regularly appearing in his films after this one. In Schwartzman’s case, this film began his acting career, while it revitalized Murray’s and led to his continued involvement in indie comedies. Rushmore student Max Fischer (Schwartzman) remains one of Anderson’s definitive characters. Max is both highly involved in activities and clubs at the academy, directing plays and founding organizations, while his grades plummet. The unreciprocated love triangle that develops involves a teacher at Rushmore (Olivia Williams) and their friend, businessman and disillusioned family man Herman Blume (Murray). The extravagance of Max’s precocious activities are the type of things that only exist in Anderson’s films. The play that Max directs takes place in the middle of the Vietnam war and is complete with action scenes that include helicopters and planes dropping napalm.
The sort of struggling genius character that Max encompasses become a setup to Anderson’s group of failed geniuses that take center stage in his next film, The Royal Tenenbaums, which essentially takes the Max Fischer character, makes him half as young and twice as unsuccesful, and splits him into three different characters: the three prodigies of the Tenenbaum family, who are Richie (Luke Wilson), Chas (Ben Stiller), and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow). These three rise to prominence and then shortly after fail as a tennis player, a businessman, and a playwright respectively. Their father, Royal (Gene Hackman), alternates between being neglectful and outright emotionally abusive to all of them. Following years of strained relationships between the entire family, Royal lies about having lung cancer in an effort to reunite everyone but especially to reunite with his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston).
The primary narrative arcs involve Royal trying to reach out to Chas, with whom he has the most strained relationship, and Richie coming to terms with his feelings for his adopted sister Margot. The cast is rounded out by Wes Anderson regulars Bill Murray as Margot’s husband Raleigh St. Clair and neurologist, Owen Wilson as Richie’s best friend and Tenenbaum family wannabe Eli Cash, and Danny Glover as Etheline’s accountant-turned-fiancee Henry Sherman. Simply describing the brief backgrounds of the ensemble cast shows that Anderson’s already eccentric films took an increasingly eccentric turn with this effort.
A love letter to Jacques Cousteau, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) contains familiar elements of Anderson’s while still exploring new techniques, including the use of stop-motion animation and the director’s first genuine action scene. This also marks the first film that Anderson doesn’t co-write with Owen Wilson; instead, he collaborates with Noah Baumbach of The Squid and the Whale (2005). Bill Murray returns yet again, this time in the starring role as the eponymous Steve Zissou. Anjelica Huston is also again in the estranged matriarch role as his wife Eleanor.
Following the death of his friend and creative partner Esteban (Seymour Cassel), Zissou enters a creative slump. His feelings of faded glory are of course well worn territory, as is the awkward relationship that develops when Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) seeks Zissou out claiming to be his son. Still even further worn out territory is the unrequited love triangle that develops between Zissou, Ned, and Jane (Cate Blanchett), a reporter covering Team Zissou.
In a series of films with notable soundtracks, this one has to be mentioned specifically for the inclusion of Brazilian native Seu Jorge covering David Bowie classics. Jorge had previously made himself known as a musician through his own songwriting and later in life as an actor in City of God (2002). Jorge had not previously even heard of Bowie until Anderson brought him on board to record his own renditions on acoustic guitar.
The subject of broken families has always been a common thread in Anderson’s films, and The Darjeeling Limited (2007) again portrays a strained relationship between three brothers, played by Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, and Owen Wilson. The film begins with a short film with only tenuous ties to the main story, Hotel Chevalier, which features Jason Schwartzman’s character Jack and his unnamed ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman). Portman’s character only has a brief cameo in Darjeeling, but the short film detailing a brief meeting between the two sets the tone for the main feature.
The Whitman brothers, Peter (Brody), Jack (Schwartzman), and Francis (Wilson), attempt to reconcile their relationship on a spiritual journey of sorts on a train through India. While at this point, the strange, misbehaved family story might seem to be wearing thin (again complete with Anjelica Huston as the mother of the boys), Anderson finds ways to make these characters both interesting and far removed from the previous archetypes that he uses. Highlights include flashbacks that detail the brothers’ reaction following their father’s funeral, their interactions on the various stops on the train, and a brief romantic fling between Jack and a waitress on the train he refers to as “Sweet Lime” (Amara Karan).
Anderson’s most recent film until now was also his first animated film. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) is based on the book by Roald Dahl. Expanding upon his first forays into stop-motion animation in Life Aquatic, the visual style of Fox combines his usual sensibilities with the original drawings of the book. Although the most lighthearted of all his films, this story yet again revolves around family issues. The Fox family, Mr. (George Clooney), Mrs. (Meryl Streep), son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), and cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), become wrapped up in a master plan to rob the three mean farmers who neighbor their house under a tree. The conflicts between Mr. and Mrs. Fox over a broken promise never to rob chickens again reflects many of the previous familial conflicts in Anderson’s films, this time in a form that’s suitable for children. (Even all bad words are replaced with the word “cuss”). Kristofferson seems to be the most typical character for Anderson because his many talents simply come naturally, eliciting the jealousy of his cousin.
The next feature film from Wes Anderson promises to offer many of the same fantastical qualities. Set on a New England island town in the 60s, Moonrise Kingdom (2012) tells the story of two children who fall in love and make an elaborate plan to run away. The young boy’s boyscout troop comes looking for him, while the girl’s dysfunctional family sets out looking for her. Bill Murray and Jason Scwartzman round out a cast of Anderson newcomers that includes Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, and Bob Balaban. The final part in a series of appropriately quaint behind the scenes featurettes introduces Wes Anderson in a way that I only hope I’ve done half as good of a job at doing:
Moonrise Kingdom opens on May 25.