erik lundegaard

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Wes Anderson’s bruised souls

An obstinate curmudgeon, surrounded by an amateurish crew, is down on his luck. After a flurry of petty machinations, he loses his place, his woman, his reason for being. But along the way, and without a clear demarcation point, he achieves a kind of wisdom, a kind of acceptance. By giving up the notion of who he imagines himself to be, he is allowed to be that very thing. And only then is happiness achieved.

This, stripped of deadpan actors, deadpan camera shots and quirky background music, is the essential storyline of a Wes Anderson movie.

So Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), imagining himself a great playwright, has to lose his beloved prep school, Rushmore, as well as his beloved, Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), before coming closer to being that playwright.

So Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), pretending to be a loving family man, has to lose both home and family before becoming that family man.

So Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), posing as a great oceanographer, has to lose his undersea funding, his wife (the brains of the operation), and his need for revenge against a jaguar shark before coming closer to being that oceanographer.

Acceptance is key for Wes Anderson’s protagonists. Inclusion is key. Bring everyone to your table. Max not only invites romantic rivals Herman Blume (Bill Murray) and Dr. Peter Flynn (Luke Wilson) to his final play, and even seats Blume next to Miss Cross, he also casts Rushmore bully Magnus Buchan (Stephen McCole) in the play. Royal Tenenbaum asks for Henry Sherman’s (Danny Glover) forgiveness on the very day Henry is marrying Etheline Tenenbaum (Angelica Huston), Royal’s ex-wife. Steve Zissou winds up accepting both his rival, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), as well as the jaguar shark who ate his best friend, and whom, for most of the film, he was intent on killing.

The lesson of a Wes Anderson film is spiritual: Exclusion isn’t necessarily the problem but inclusion is almost always the solution.

Too bruised to live

Yet I’m not a huge fan.

That’s a good way to start an argument, by the way: Admit you’re not a huge Wes Anderson fan.

There’s certainly a lot to admire in his films — not the least of which is that they are his films rather than a studio’s films. They have an individual sensibility. You recognize them a mile off.

There’s the deadpan camera angles used for comic effect, the deadpan deliveries used for comic effect, the conversational pauses used for comic effect. There’s the captions chronicling Max Fischer’s afterschool activities (“Bombardment Society Founder”) or the Tenenbaum children’s various hobbies (“H.A.M. Radio”; “Drum Set”).

His characters have wide-ranging but, one assumes, shallow interests; they have reputations for brilliance that don’t quite pan out. Max Fischer? “He’s one of the worst students we’ve got.” The Tenenbaum prodigies? Their childhood accomplishments “had been erased by nearly two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster.” Team Zissou? “Klaus here used to be a bus driver... We’re a pack of strays, don’t you get it?”

There’s a sense that something, somewhere, was lost. Weren’t we supposed to be better? Go farther? How did we wind up here — in public school, back at our mother’s home, stealing equipment for another undersea voyage? His characters are, at their best, theatrical, and at their worst, numb. With few exceptions, they are easily bruised. They seem too delicate for the world.

Glub glub glub

Is it fair to say that Anderson’s films (and possibly his career) are like the lives of his characters? They begin with such promise and then fizzle. His imagination is wonderful, and he crams so much into the beginning of his films, just as his characters cram so many activities into their youthful lives. But by the end? I don’t know what he’s doing.

A stoned, war-painted Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) crashing (literally) the wedding of Etheline and Henry? Killing the dog and nearly killing Chas’ (Ben Stiller) boys? Yes, it sets up the final act — Chas’ great fear is nearly realized so he is able to a) overcome that fear, and b) finally forgive his father — but it feels a little neat. Chas becomes that Hollywood staple: a character with an obvious fault who overcomes that fault to become more like us. Worse, the tone and events don’t match. Anderson’s camera is still joking around while the events it depicts are dead serious.

The discrepancy between tone and events gets worse with “Zissou.” There is a moment in the film when Zissou fights back against the marauding pirates, firing off a pistol like it’s a cap gun, like he’s a kid playing cowboys and Indians. One assumes that it’s a fantasy, a dream sequence, but it’s not. Zissou really is killing pirates. People really are dying. So why does Anderson make it all feel false?

What is it with his love of the fake and the theatrical anyway? Why the goofy “Yellow Submarine” glub-glub-glubbing at the end of “Zissou”? Why remind us that what we’re watching isn’t real? Is he trying to keep us at an emotional distance? Doesn’t he like us?

The thrust of a Wes Anderson film is about becoming a member of a team or a family — “I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum,” Eli Cash admits, to which Royal responds, sympathetically, and thus profoundly, “Me, too. Me, too” — but, for all the team-building and acceptance of outsiders like Eli, it feels like we, the audience, are still left out. Anderson’s use of irony, rather than being a private comment between creator and audience (with the characters left out of the joke), increasingly feels like a private joke between creator and characters (with the audience left out of the joke). He’s not letting us on board.

Deadpan style

So can he rebound with “The Darjeeling Limited”? I’m not sure. Because of his deadpan directing style, he needs to work with real actors who are full of life (Gene Hackman), rather than deadpan actors who aren’t (Bill Murray), and I don’t know if he has them. Even in the 13-minute short, “Hotel Chevalier,” a prequel to “Darjeeling,” it’s the literally bruised and lively Natalie Portman who intrigues, while the figuratively bruised and deadpan Jason Schwartzman merely bores. In the middle of Paris and he’s watching TV? You want to yell as him: Life hurts! Grow up! Move on!

“Darjeeling” promises to be a spiritual journey in the Anderson manner: estranged siblings who, on a train ride through India, come closer to being a real family. I hope it works. But in dramatic terms, as opposed to spiritual ones, exclusion isn’t necessarily a problem; and inclusion isn’t always a solution.

—Erik Lundegaard knows he’s never made a movie, so who the hell is he to say anything, but feel free to tell him anyway. This article was originally published September, 28, 2007 on MSNBC.com.)