Wes Anderson, Please Don’t Become Tim Burton

Wes Anderson is capable of perfect moments like this. But I don’t think he even cares.

I love him, don’t get me wrong. I’m a Wes Anderson fan. I really am. Every single one of his movies are either very good or great. Well, almost every single one. His latest, Moonrise Kingdom, is quite bad. And that worries me. Because until it, Anderson had that whole ‘style and substance’ thing down pat—and then suddenly, not so much. To the untrained eye, one might assume it was simply a much-needed slapdash, throwaway, breather film after the hard work and meticulousness of Fantastic Mr. Fox. But I suspect something worse going on. I suspect hackery.

There’s a saying that one should never meet their idols. Jay Mohr tells a sad story about this on his podcast Mohr Stories, about being on the set of Pluto Nash talking to Eddie Murphy and bringing up one of his favorite standup bits of all time, from Delirious, in which Eddie impersonates his father complaining to Eddie that the family dog is stupid and doesn’t know his own name. The father then ‘proves’ this by calling the dog’s name—to which the dog suddenly walks away, and the Dad says “See?” This is one of Jay’s favorite jokes of all time, because the dog does in fact know his own name, he just doesn’t like Eddie’s dad. Apparently, Eddie Murphy had never considered this, or at least, didn’t even remember this layer to the joke. And later, he came back to Jay and said “Yeah, I see what you mean, I guess that’s one of those like, three-dimensional jokes,” still not really caring though.

It hurts to realize that an artist doesn’t care as much as you do about their own work, or even put as much thought into said work as you might have hoped. I experienced this very crushing blow this past week when I watched, or rather, tried to watch, the audio commentary for Bottle Rocket, right after re-watching it for the first time in many years and re-realizing how absolutely fantastic it is. This was a movie I watched incessantly as a teenager, and it certainly helped calcify my desire to make movies of my own, so to say I love it is an understatement. I didn’t get too far into the commentary though, because it was pretty brutal.

From the start, it’s clear that Anderson and Owen Wilson do not want to be there. It then also becomes clear, quite quickly, that they don’t even remember what’s in the movie. In their mind, they’ve lumped it in the same pile as the black and white Bottle Rocket short they did a few years before it (which got them the money to make the feature-length version) and can hardly remember what scenes are in each. From their tone, you’d swear they were watching some shoddy student film they made as youths, rather than one of the absolute greatest debut films of all time. They come across as disaffected and bored as if you plucked two random teens from the audience of Fast & Furious 6 and sat them in front of this movie and gave them microphones.

What exactly is Wes Anderson scoffing at here? Is it the fact that Bottle Rocket doesn’t feature the signature Wes Anderson design and colors and tint? For that matter, Rushmore doesn’t either. In small doses, sure it does (just like Bottle Rocket) but the iconic ‘Wes Anderson style’ really didn’t begin until The Royal Tenenbaums. He was cultivating a much different style before then; a more subtle, mature style. And then from Royal onwards, things got kooky.

I have no problem with ‘kooky’. If a movie works, it works. I’ll roll with any style you can throw at me so long as there’s substance there, and the two mesh. For instance, I’ve long been a hater of shakycam in instances where the cameraperson is not a character in the film—that is, until I saw La Promesse. The Dardenne brothers do it right. They plan their shots beautifully and the pace takes on a certain rhythm that just could not have been achieved any other way. They’re the unsung kings of shakycam, no doubt about it.

Similarly, it’s safe to say Anderson is the king of kook. Even if you don’t like his style, his style is distinct, and synonymous with him. That’s a hell of an achievement, but it’s a blessing and a curse. Just look at the career of Tim Burton. When your style is distinct as hell, and has a diehard following that is obsessed with it, it’s quite easy and tempting to stop putting actual effort in and just coast—and Moonrise Kingdom is definitely Anderson’s first ‘coast movie’.

But perhaps other ones were that as well. His ambivalence towards Bottle Rocket really unnerved me, and made me wonder if he even puts much thought into any of his movies. I have no doubt that he’s a highly intelligent guy, but the impression of him that I’ve had in my mind since I was a teen, of this extremely meticulous and deliberate filmmaker, might  in fact be quite far off. Perhaps he just coasts on his own impeccable instincts and taste.

If that’s true, fine. There’s really nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s worked great for him almost every film. Some kids need to study all night to ace a test, some kids can just show up and ace it—and ultimately, all I care about, as a filmgoer, is that said test is aced. But in a perfect world where I can have whatever I want, I’d prefer Anderson go back to making films like Bottle Rocket and Rushmore again; smaller pictures with smaller brush strokes. Every book in a film doesn’t need to have an elaborately designed cover, Wes. Maybe someone can pick up a book with no cover once in a while, ya feel me? Such a thing might keep the focus on the characters. But alas, do whatever you want, buddy. Just make it good. Here’s hoping The Grand Budapest Hotel is dope. I’m quite intrigued by the fact that it’s your first solo screenwriting credit. (My fingers are crossed that this is because you got sick of that perennial hack Roman Coppola after Moonrise and decided to just bang one out on your own for once.) Anyways, see ya in 2014, in theaters, as always.

5 thoughts on “Wes Anderson, Please Don’t Become Tim Burton”

  1. I did like Moonrise Kingdom, however I wouldn’t be surprised if Roman Coppola’s presence affected your opinion because A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III was awful. It tried to do this sort of Wes Anderson via-Fellini thing that was just an awful mess. To be fair, my least favorite Anderson film is The Darjeeling Limited which was also co-written by Coppola.

  2. It’s a bummer Anderson and co. were so disaffected by Bottle Rocket in the commentary. At the same time it’s normal for filmmakers not to even watch their own material after it’s been released. Maybe you can go back to it years later, but after you’ve done it, there’s no point in watching it again and seeing all the flaws and mistakes and concessions you had to make. Forgetting those things, and just enjoying the film on its own merits, can be pretty difficult.

    I think what Wes is in danger of is just parodying his own style. I love the attention to detail he puts into his color pallette for costumes, etc. In that sense he is very painterly about it. On the other hand, it’s getting boring. We can predict what one of his movies is going to look like, feel like. He’s on a path to irrelevancy, like Sofia Coppola. Who talks about the Bling Ring? Is there anything in that film worth talking about?

  3. I thought The Bling Ring was pretty damn good. In the hands of a lesser director it could have been a mess but Coppola nailed it. Things worth talking about – Celebrity worship, youth & entitlement, media, making an artful film about vapid and shallow people.

    Cody, did you write a formal review of Moonrise Kingdom? I’m interested in knowing why you didn’t like it. And yeah, just skip Charles Swan III, it is by all means terrible.

    1. It’s been a while since I saw Moonrise, so I’d have to watch it again if I was gonna review it, which I don’t really want to do. Issues with it that I do remember, though: I hated the cinematography (the tracking shots specifically, and the weird framing of Bob Balaban) the opening credits (who the fuck puts the credits in the corners like that, it’s annoying) the color grading (he went way too yellow, it was like a student trying to ‘do’ Wes Anderson color grading on Final Cut Pro, and it ruined all sense of time because you could never tell what time of day it was or get the sense that you were even outdoors) the kid leads (normally I like kids in his movies, but these kids weren’t interesting) the adult leads (Jason was good but he was barely in it, and the people that did have big roles seemed more like they should have had smaller roles, and vice versa) the suddenly zany story bits (the lightning, et al., which get in the way of the story having any semblance of realism).

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