Simply stated, Wes Anderson is the most original presence in American film comedy since Preston Sturges. He is as boundlessly confident as Sturges was in his heyday, and he has a similarly keen ear for gaudy dialogue; a gift for surprise and for topping one joke with a bigger one; a knack for rooting out archetypes hitherto untouched in movies; and a penchant for making films that feel like pageants, composed of a democratically diverse cross section of humanity.
There the similarities end. Unlike Sturges, Anderson is fixated on failure, hesitation, depression. He has a very keen sense of class envy. Each of his three films is set within a sheltered, semiexclusive, self-contained universe: a triumvirate of upper-middle-class Texas youths with time on their hands in Bottle Rocket, a boys’ prep school in Rushmore, a family of fallen geniuses in The Royal Tenenbaums. Each film is centered around a character from a little lower on the economic ladder, whose aspiration to be part of the exclusive milieu dovetails with an undercurrent of mourning and a longing for family. Owen Wilson, Anderson’s cowriter and most magical actor, plays the role in Bottle Rocket; Jason Schwartzman virtually defines it as Max Fischer in Rushmore; and Gene Hackman adds a touching dimension of mortality to the mix with his threadbare patriarch in Tenenbaums. Wilson’s wigged-out Eli Cash underscores the yearning, the overgrown boy who “always wanted to be a Tenenbaum.”
Anderson is a fluid quick-change artist who takes mischievous delight in shifting registers within a film, but he’s also extremely careful to let his characters’ emotional dilemmas take root and flower. In one instant, you’re watching the most flamboyant expository setup: Tenenbaums’ opening index of failure, set to “Hey Jude,” or the private detective’s file on “adopted daughter” Margot Tenenbaum’s indiscretions; Rushmore’s hilarious checklist of Max’s extracurricular activities. Then, almost before you have time to catch your breath, you’re into a moment that’s bursting with life, as surprising as anything in early Renoir. Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are both very fastidious films—the framing is always neat and foursquare, the action shaped into compact, unitlike scenes (Bottle Rocket, a lyrical idyll disguised as a run from the law, is a looser movie that floats across the screen like a ribbon in the wind). But their formality is emotionally grounded, empathically tied to the depressed characters and their rock-hard defense mechanisms. And the moment captured within each scene is often impossibly fragile, a matter of mood, posture, overcast skies. For instance, Max and his father (Seymour Cassel) having a talk about life, the son in his school blazer and the father in his dull winter jacket and earmuffs, as they walk through a lower-middle-class neighborhood at the end of an autumn afternoon. It’s a little wonder of a scene, with a heartbreaking simplicity. Richie’s and Margot’s visits to the rooftop of the Tenenbaum mansion have a similarly somber beauty, like illustrations from a slightly risque´ children’s book.
Anderson’s attunement to his actors as individuals is breathtaking. He fixes on their most private traits and builds their characters accordingly: Gene Hackman’s penchant for bobbing and weaving with his fellow actors, turning the screen into a sports arena; Bill Murray’s wistful, sad-sack withdrawal and real-life disenchantment; Gwyneth Paltrow’s tendency to singularize her characterizations and narrow things down to a finite set of gestures; Ben Stiller’s exaggeratedly physical, high-voltage comic attack. There’s a scene in Rushmore where Max is chatting up the bombshell mom (Connie Nielsen) of his “chapel partner” Dirk Calloway (Mason Gamble). Just as he’s intoning about the values he’s trying to impart to his self-appointed charge, Dirk shows up and Mrs. Calloway’s attention shifts without so much as a beat. Schwartzman does a perfect rendition of the vain teenager making a show of gracefully withdrawing from the company of an adult who doesn’t really care either way. His reaction is so perfect (and perfectly gawky) that it appears to have been felt rather than acted. Danny Glover and Anjelica Huston’s first kiss in The Royal Tenenbaums: he arrives at her excavation site (she’s an urban archeologist), decked out in trademark blue blazer and bow tie, backs into the subject at hand, then takes a spectacular pratfall before they both stumble into a formal declaration of mutual affection. Other directors would probably break the scene up into cloying, bold-faced moments (befitting the post-Home Alone era of digitally augmented slapstick) and end with the site workers applauding the embrace. Anderson does it in a minimum of setups, and stays on his actors to let the emotion silently build after Huston’s Etheline Tenenbaum admits that she hasn’t slept with a man for eighteen years. The awkwardness feels real, and achingly human.
Anderson is a filmmaker whose work you either get or you don’t. For someone like me, who connected directly with his sensibility from the first frame of Bottle Rocket, it’s difficult to comprehend how anyone could not get the work of such a devastating entertainer, such a deft manipulator of emotions. First of all, there’s the sheer velocity of Anderson’s storytelling. With each new film, his desire to spell things out for his audience has decreased, in inverse proportion to his ever increasing inventiveness. From the start, Anderson has given his audience just enough to get by. If you blink, you may miss a gesture or a line or a detail that alludes to a crucial aspect of a character’s emotional life, the core dilemma that they’re hiding for fear of being exposed and embarrassed before the world. Max Fischer, more royalist than the king in his ever present school blazer and games of one-upmanship with his headmaster (Brian Cox), could easily seem like just a “creepy kid,” as a friend of mine once put it. But that’s only if you fail to connect with his profound anger and sadness over his mother’s death, alluded to a grand total of two times in the entire movie, and ever so briefly at that (“What a coincidence—we both have dead people in our families,” he says to Olivia Williams’s Miss Cross, in an attempt to be urbanely sympathetic; people are always using language as a shield in Anderson’s films). Otherwise, we’re meant to infer it from his outrageously provocative behavior, begging for negative attention. (In Bottle Rocket, the emotional dilemma behind Dignan’s home invasion drills and seventy-five-year planning is never even alluded to.) Anderson doesn’t linger over the causes but instead homes in on the nuances of the effects, and finds a double line of vision in the process: he remains within the obsessive rhythms of his characters’ lives but finds a way of laughing at their excesses.
Repetition compulsion is a big item in culture these days. As a form, the expectation of change versus the reality of sameness once seemed like a strictly art-world/philosophical opposition, an exotic novelty in the writings of Deleuze and the music of Glass, Reich, and Reilly. Now it’s pervasive, the perfect form for a depressed age, from Atom Egoyan to Tsai Ming-liang, from Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us to Manoel de Oliveira’s I’m Going Home, from Phillip Roth’s American trilogy to Don DeLillo’s Underworld, from Seinfeld to Ghost World to In the Mood for Love to trip-hop. Anderson has mastered the form, making winning, warm movies about angry, dissociated people who never consciously arrive at reconciliation but always stumble into it on their endless quests to recover what they’ve lost. Anderson’s spectacular showmanship can easily overshadow the intricate, motoring designs behind his work. If you don’t recognize the bereavement that animates Dignan, Max, and the entire Tenenbaum family, then Bottle Rocket might seem like another pleasant indie comedy (thus the awful pull quote in Sony’s nearly nonexistent ad campaign: “Reservoir Geeks!”), Rushmore an idiosyncratic coming-of-age movie, and Tenenbaums a menagerie of eccentrics à la John Irving. And if you can’t locate the current of emotion that powers Anderson’s collection of boffo effects, knockout one-liners, and over-the-top inventions, his films may seem like a series of endearing mishmashes. His oeuvre provides an object lesson in just how degraded film-viewing habits have become from too much TV and blockbusterism, how movies and sitcoms have primed us to wait for the underlining of emotions before we allow ourselves to intuit them.
Another thing that distinguishes Anderson is his extremely private, rarefied sensibility. His work betrays an overall sense of someone who grew up in a polite, quiet, repressed environment, accustomed to hiding under the covers with a flashlight, folding his emotions into make-believe shadow plays on the ceiling, silently cultivating a poetic universe of self-protection. In this homemade, handcrafted world—embodied by Mark Mothersbaugh’s aggressive, magical, childlike scores—there’s a strong aroma of sixth-grade shop class, of the ashtray you made for your mom found in the back of a closet after twenty years. Engraved pocketknives, shirts worn backward as smocks, old Stones albums, and forgotten board games have weight and presence as tokens of loss.
The Royal Tenenbaums is certainly Anderson’s grandest movie, and if it feels like an epic at 110 minutes, it’s probably because there’s so much territory covered in each briskly paced scene and densely packed Scope shot—visual, geographical, gestural, and emotional. The setting is a timeless version of greater Manhattan (as opposed to a timeless version of greater Houston), but it’s far from a tourist’s inventory of the Big Apple. This is a New York of faded, seedy grandeur, where Holden Caulfield might cross paths with the unlucky hustler of Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle.” It’s true that Tenenbaums is filled to the brim with high-flown comic inventions, like Owen Wilson’s J. Peterman-ish all-star novelist Eli Cash, or the outlandish worldwide wanderings of Paltrow’s Margot. It’s also true that it’s shorter on the kind of detail work that endeared Rushmore to its fans, like that brief yet indelible shot of Sara Tanaka’s Margaret Yang at the science fair, delicately craning her neck to look for Max, or the barely glimpsed name “Thayer,” printed with early adolescent awkwardness on Max’s Latin reinstatement petition. But then this is a different film, even more melancholy than its predecessor, with a different configuration of characters. And it’s about a different kind of longing, too: to “restore” a family that was never that happy in the first place to an eminence that never was. It’s funny that some critics have gotten tripped up by the fact that none of the Tenenbaum children appear to be part of the same family. Because that’s pretty much the point. Anderson is tackling a difficult, sad (and sadly familiar) dynamic here: a loving but fundamentally inattentive matriarch, a long-gone father who hides behind layers of guff and nonsense from western dime novels (“Look at that old grizzly bear,” he says of Glover’s beyond elegant suitor, Henry), and three overgrown children with nothing but the memory of their own glory days for company. They’ve each built their own genius-stricken identity (Stiller is the “preternaturally” talented financial whiz kid, Paltrow is the playwright, and Luke Wilson is the tennis star) in a failed effort to define themselves outside of their unfathomable but inescapable family.
The film proudly wears its inspirations on its sleeve: Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, Salinger’s Glass family stories, the old New Yorker of Ross and Shawn, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the Velvet Underground, a tinge of Fitzgerald, a dash of Philip Barry. But it speaks in its own singular voice: at once tender and probing, mindful of New York and its special mixture of grit and glory, but confident enough to mold it into a big, faded magic playhouse, a limitless extension of the Tenenbaum family’s private universe. The spectacle of father and children contriving to return home and make amends (“Why are they allowed to do that?” asks Paltrow when Etheline tells her that Stiller’s Chas is moving his family back into the Tenenbaum mansion) deepens with each new viewing. The movie only gets funnier (Royal and Chas’s screaming match inside the games closet; Royal’s outlaw excursions with his grandsons, to whom he offers the following condolence for the accidental death of their mother: “I’m sorry for your loss—your mother was a terribly attractive woman”), more moving (Richie and Margot’s secret tryst in his tent as they listen to “She Smiled Sweetly” and “Ruby Tuesday” on an old record player; every interaction between Etheline and Henry; Royal taking Margot out for ice cream over the melancholy strains of Vince Guaraldi’s immortal A Charlie Brown Christmas theme), and more sheerly delightful (Eli quietly bugging out on national television). The word epiphany gets thrown around a lot, but it should be reserved for moments like the flight of Richie’s falcon over the New York skyline, bearing away the lost splendor of the Tenenbaums; or Margot, armored in her fur coat and striped cotton dress, her eyes shrouded in mascara, her hair pushed back with a barrette like a twelve-year-old’s, her mouth creased in an adolescent half smile, approaching Richie to the tune of Nico’s evanescent “These Days.” Or the moment near the end of the film when Chas, a mountain of hyped-up, burning anger in a red tracksuit throughout the movie, suddenly switches emotional gears for a final parting. I’ve never seen moments like these in any other movie.
Kent Jones is the author of Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism, a volume of his writings, and the director of the 2007 documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. He also wrote and directed 2010’s A Letter to Elia with Martin Scorsese. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2002 DVD edition of The Royal Tenenbaums; an earlier version of it appeared in Film Comment.