Though Christmas is still months away, already the anticipation is killing me. While symbolically and in my heart Jesus is coming, the new Wes Anderson movie also approaches, in literal reality, throughout actual movie theaters across America. For those of us whom Anderson has bewitched with his unabashedly quirky films — of criminal ineptitude (Bottle Rocket), adolescent angst (Rushmore), and family dysfunction (The Royal Tenenbaums) — the advent of Anderson’s fourth effort means another glimpse into a distinctive and bravely fey imagination.
Anderson hardly fits the image of the edgy Hollywood auteur. No Vincent Gallo or Spike Jonze, he is a bookish 35-year-old who wears glasses best described as spectacles and is widely reported to have his clothes specially tailored a few sizes too small. Upon discovering that he’s from Texas — a graduate of UT Austin, no less — one wonders how long the slight director-writer would last among the Princeton Texans’ well-muscled ranks. More than anything, he resembles a waifish but quietly radiant English teacher— perhaps a JV golf coach — at a prep school. Maybe that’s because not only is he in fact the product of a prep school (St. John’s in Houston), but also in Rushmore, his break-out hit, he explores that strange world through the experiences of Rushmore Academy’s most singular student, Max Fischer.
Co-written with Owen Wilson, the now canonized comedy rests on the acting laurels of Jason Schwartzman as Max, one of those marvelously self-possessed if geeky teenagers who might have inspired David Brooks’ “Organization Kid” of yesteryear had he existed outside of Anderson’s imagination. Max has loads of talent – he writes plays, keeps bees, and bullshits constantly – but he doesn’t have a clue about any of the all-important obsessions of teen movies: friendship, love and sex. One of his many mistakes is to confuse the latter two, which leads to a still greater debacle when he attempts to tackle them both at the same time. And to complicate matters further, Max unwisely elects for his target practice a widow, played by Olivia Williams, who may or may not have a thing for aquariums.
As the movie veers wildly from teacher-crush to expulsion to revolution, Max receives aid and companionship from the crusty but charming steel magnate Herman Blume (acted with infinite genius by Bill Murray), whom he then proceeds to wage war upon. The love-hate relationship between the odd couple provides both actors with ample opportunity to display their comedic chops and results in the invention of a new style of humor that might perhaps be termed Anderson-Wilson, for the film’s screenwriters, or Schwartzman – Murray, or even Anderson – Wilson -Schwartzman – Murray. But, the point is that this breakthrough in tone constitutes probably the most lasting contribution of the film.
An example follows for the unfamiliar or uninitiated or those who have spent the last ten years in a spaceship or a magical grocery store and thus are suitably prepped to become Wes Anderson’s next hero:
Max Fischer: So you were in Vietnam if I’m not mistaken?
Herman Blume: Yeah.
Max Fischer: Were you in the shit?
Herman Blume: Yeah. I was in the shit.
It’s damn near impossible to say who is responsible for this now-cemented manner of absurdly deadpan delivery, but it’s not a stretch to suggest that we have this collaborative genius to thank for the resurrection of Bill Murray’s career. Just a year after his throw-away roles as a cop in the Neve Campbell vehicle Wild Things and as a bumbling spy in The Man Who Knew Too Little, and a good five years after the bona fide hit Groundhog Day, Murray turned in one of the best performances of his career in Rushmore which lead to an Oscar-worthy performance in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation in 2003. Coppola, perhaps not coincidentally, is Jason Schwartzman’s aunt and relies heavily on the Anderson-Wilson tone.
Meanwhile, lest you think I suggest that Anderson was merely setting up Phase II of Bill Murray’s career, the quietly maverick director was preparing a fitting follow-up, the darker, more fantastical, and yet somehow more popular film, The Royal Tenenbaums. This time Gwyneth Paltrow, portraying Luke Wilson’s sister by adoption, replaces Olivia Williams as the forbidden fruit, and Anderson, whose influences range from the band the Kinks to Harold and Maude, borrows liberally from J.D. Salinger. Big, zany family of indeterminate Semitic/WASP origins with a passel of now-grown child-geniuses living in New York City, trying to get it together but increasingly falling into mediocrity, depression and self-destruction? It’s awfully similar to the Salinger’s Glass family from Franny and Zoey and Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters. But with Gene Hackman taking over for Bill Murray as the wry and deeply flawed but nevertheless irresistible paternal figure, the Tenenbaums are able to reach a point Salinger could never bring himself to offer his readers: the much-denied cusp of redemption.
Anderson and writing partner Owen Wilson are far too clever to take the matter of redemption overboard in the manner of Zack Braff, whose recent indie hit Garden State should be lauded for eschewing the shock-tactics and nihilism of a Quentin Tarentino film but does so at the expense of indulging in high schmaltz. Instead of continuing an upward trajectory from the prison finale of 1996’s Bottle Rocket to the dance floor wrap of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums leaves us with a sobering if subversively funny vision of its characters’ futures: Margot’s new play receives mixed reviews, Richie teaches tennis at the mythical 384th Street Y, and Chas has lightened up – somewhat.
As a dedicated fan who knows Anderson’s favorite themes and influences but not where he will take them next, it is difficult to anticipate the delights of his forthcoming venture, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but harder still not to guess. For the first time, Bill Murray occupies center stage as the main character, an oceanographer obsessed with tracking down an elusive “jaguar shark” somewhere in the Mediterranean. Joining Murray is an impressive cast of repeat Anderson players and accomplished additions: Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Michael Gambon, and Jeff Goldblum. The big upsets come from the absences of Seymour Cassel (Bert Fischer from Rushmore and Dusty in TRT) and Kumar Pallana (Mr. Littlejeans and Pagoda), not to mention Luke Wilson. And what does one make of the choice to jettison of Owen Wilson fin favor of a new, unknown writing partner, Noah Baumbach? Will Baumbach show a pitch-perfect mastery of the Wilson-Anderson tone? Could the jaguar shark possibly be the new forbidden love object? How will the inevitable dysfunction unfold? Trying to pin down Anderson’s unpredictable genius may prove as hard as finding the elusive jaguar shark.