The Good, The Bad and the Badass: Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson is a genre unto himself. You either love his stuff or you hate it. Luckily, the vast majority of moviegoers and critics fall into the former category and not the latter. As far as I'm concerned, he's one of the few geniuses currently working in film, and whenever he's got something new coming out I go crazy with anticipation.
What's especially wonderful about his movies is that they're pure adult escapism. When you buy a ticket to a Wes Anderson film, you're basically surrendering to his skewered, heavily stylized vision of reality for two hours. In the Wes Anderson universe, everyone is quirky and dresses in ill-fitting blazers and trousers that are an inch too short, family drama is a given, and a mod British rock soundtrack underscores everything.
Since bursting onto the scene with 1996's BOTTLE ROCKET, Anderson's made eight movies. Each film has been almost universally acclaimed by the critics, and he's so well respected that The Criterion Collection has the exclusive North American rights to his catalogue, which is an honour that I believe is unique to Anderson, but one he thoroughly deserves. It's his unique sensibility and sense of style (which is easy to lampoon, such as on SNL's dead-on “The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Invaders” sketch) that's given him such an exalted place in American film, even if – astonishingly – he's yet to win an Academy Award, or have one of his films nominated for Best Picture. That said, with THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL raking up such incredible notices, maybe this will be the year? Even if that doesn't happen, Anderson likely has another twenty-to-thirty years of classics up his sleeve, so sooner or later he'll get his due.
For me, this is really a toss-up between RUSHMORE and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. I'm giving RUSHMORE the edge for two reasons. One, it was the first time Anderson collaborated with Bill Murray, and since them Murray's become an essential ingredient in all of his films, regardless of whether he's the lead (as in LIFE AQUATIC) or appearing in a wordless cameo (THE DARJEELING LIMITED). Pre-RUSHMORE, Murray's career was faltering through a series of uninspired comedies (LARGER THAN LIFE, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE), but his work with Anderson reinvigorated his career and helped him transition into quirkier, interesting parts. I doubt Murray would have ever done something like LOST IN TRANSLATION or BROKEN FLOWERS if it was not for his work with Anderson.
The other reason I'm choosing RUSHMORE is that it happens to be the first Wes Anderson film I ever saw. I remember it well. RUSHMORE opened in very limited release in late fall of 1998, and I saw it at the massive Loews cinema in Montreal (which sadly closed soon after) with some friends who – I suppose – were excited to see the “new Bill Murray comedy”. Inconceivably my friends hated it, but from the opening montage of Max Fisher's clubs set to Creation's “Making Time” I was hooked. Being seventeen at the time, it was easy for me to relate to Jason Schwartzman's Fisher, and in the years since I've seen the movie countless times. It's one of my all-time favorites, but then again, ROYAL TENENBAUMS is just about its equal.
This is a tough one for me as I honestly can't recall ever being unimpressed with Anderson's work, or thinking it was overrated. Probably the closest was with THE DARJEELING LIMITED. It's a good film, but Anderson made a bad mistake by making the “Hotel Chevalier” short such an important ingredient in the film (it's almost incomprehensible without it) but then having it shown theatrically minus the short, which was only tacked on to critics' screenings and festival dates, until the film was reissued after a few weeks of mediocre box office. By doing this he shot himself in the foot, and it's worth noting that in all of its home video incarnations “Hotel Chevalier” is included. To this day, THE DARJEELING LIMITED is considered his weakest film, and while I agree, Anderson at his worst is still better than anyone else at their best.
At the time, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU was Anderson's most ambitious film. Boasting a giant (for Anderson) $50 million budget, and with stories suggesting a production run amuck, when it came out LIFE AQUATIC was rather coolly received by critics, scoring a 53% on Rotten Tomatoes, and not garnering any Oscar nominations. It was also a box-office bomb by virtue of the gross-to-budget ratio. As far as I'm concerned, it's one of Anderson's best, and Bill Murray should have been nominated for an Oscar as the iconic Steve Zissou. Luckily, in the ten years since it hit theatres its picked up a massive cult following, so while it was underrated at the time, nowadays most fans consider it one of his best films.
There are so many scenes to choose from, but for me, I'll never forget being on my feet and cheering during Bill Murray's big pirate shootout in THE LIFE AQUATIC. It's so totally unexpected, and Murray's great as he runs around the boat – action hero style – wildly shooting a gun (but only nicking one pirate) and dodging grenades as Iggy Pop's “Search & Destroy” plays on the soundtrack.
With THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL having just opened in limited release (it hasn't hit Montreal yet so I haven't had the chance to see it) we probably won't be hearing much from Anderson for the next year or so. Typically he makes a film every two years or so, meaning he'll probably come out with something new around 2016, although if he's working on anything it's still being kept quiet.
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