What’s Up With Wes Anderson?

Since junior high, folks have been recommending Wes Anderson to me. It started out like a distant whisper in the background and grew, in later years, to a rather insistent shout.

Once I actually began reading up on his stuff, I dismissed his movies as pretentious hipster fare, designed to give self-professed cinephiles permission to mock my love of cheesy action movies and musicals. It seemed to me, at the time, that the only people who actually watched his movies were so convinced of their own superiority that they had to let everyone else around them know as often as possible how cultured they were for not giving into the mainstream as readily as I had.

Well, the joke’s on them, because I’m awesome, and they can just go deal with it.

But anyways, for whatever reason, I started thinking about Wes Anderson again recently, and figured I should at least check him out. I realize I’m WAY behind the times here, and everyone else has already heard of him, but this was a new experience to me, and I want to share it.

I had heard amazing things about The Grand Budapest Hotel (which just won a Golden Globe and snagged an Oscar nom!), and was in the mood for something weird anyways, so I picked up four titles which had been recommended the most to me over the years:

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) – an absent father (Gene Hackman) tries to reconnect with his broken family of former child prodigies (Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, and Luke Wilson) and a wife (Anjelica Huston) who can’t decide if she wants to forgive him.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) – a washed up oceanographer (Bill Murray) sets out on one last expedition to find the fabled Jaguar Shark that killed his best friend, accompanied by a man (Owen Wilson) who may or may not be his long lost son. Also starring literally every other awesome actor in Hollywood, all of whom are pictured in this shot.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) – An irrepressible chicken thief (George Clooney) promises to his wife (Meryl Streep) to change his ways…but only after secretly carrying out the biggest fowl heist of his career. Rendered in vintage-looking stop-motion animation.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – After stealing a priceless painting, a flamboyant hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes) must evade capture and stay alive with the help of his lobby boy (Tony Revolori). Set against the turbulent years between the two world wars.

And here’s what I found.

If I had just chosen one title and watched it, I probably would not have understood it and would have left the rest of Anderson’s oeuvre to amuse others, content with my own tastes as they were. But as I went along, I realized that these movies have a way of getting under your skin, prompting you to continue thinking about them for days on end. Sure, they can be a bit too self-congratulatory in places, and sometimes, they seem to be too obviously quirky (for the sake of being quirky), but they do make for incredibly satisfying experiences. By day four of my marathon, I was pretty hopelessly in love with these movies. They’re odd, darkly hilarious, visually gorgeous, and feature flawed, deeply human characters you can’t help but adore. Even though these movies tend toward the magical realism end of the spectrum, they seem more honest about the human condition, in many ways.

I suppose these movies could be classified as comedies, if you follow Shakespeare’s definition. The laugh-out-loud moments are deftly combined with tragic happenings, resulting in what can only be described as a series of surreal grey comedies. Anderson does often manage to end on a positive note, but be warned that he’s going to take you all over the emotional spectrum before you get there.

Visually, these movies seem to be what would happen if a  Baroque painting and a children’s I Spy book had strange, implausible, perfectly symmetrical babies.

There’s an entire novel’s worth of character development and suggested plot in this shot alone.
-The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Every single one of his shots could be framed and hung on the wall, they’re so perfectly crafted. I love Anderson’s obsession with symmetry. Not only does it help to lift the scenarios he’s presenting just far enough out of the realm of the realistic to get you thinking, but they’re just so gosh darn pretty to look at. It’s like porn for neat freaks.  Also, I love how he blends animation, miniatures, and stylized matte paintings into his sets. It makes the whole thing seem like it’s taking place inside a richly complex miniature diorama.

*resists urge not to start singing “Under the Sea”
-The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Anderson’s movies are shot with such precision that they seem to be the result of some vast Swiss-calibrated clockwork mechanism, with the camera gliding seamlessly along the x, y, and z axes. There are no shaky cameras or Dutch angles. As a result, you find yourself paying attention to the actors and the background equally.

I’m pretty sure sure he has a whole series of procedures to pull off his signature centered-character shot, because they’re always perfect.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

And I love his use of color. Everything is so vibrant and richly textured without being overwhelming. I guess one could call it flamboyant minimalism at times. He knows how to use negative space, filling it with just enough detail to make multiple viewings interesting, but not to the point of being cluttered and overwhelming.

I would hang this on my wall. Seriously.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

I could continue to gush about how pretty these movies are, but I need to move on.

Anderson’s movies aren’t just visually impressive; they’re gorgeously written. He takes generally simple overall plots, and populates them with such multi-layered characters that you feel like you’ve always known them. Regardless of how weird these movies can get at times, the forest of dysfunctional families, flawed-but-well-meaning fathers, and friendships which transcend hardship are so beautifully presented that you can’t help but feel for and relate to these people. Everyone knows at least one person in their lives who reminds them of one of these characters. Anderson does a beautiful job of giving all his characters the emotional depth needed to suggest a whole life before and after the actual events presented. It’s like the dramatic equivalent of a vanishing point in a painting where we only see part of the road, but we know it must go on forever.

I’m to the point where I want to run up to someone with a copy of The Life Aquatic in my hands and say, “Do you want to watch this with me? Please?”

So, thank you, Universe, for continually poking me and saying, “Hey. Hey buddy. Hey. you should check this guy out.” I still love my cheesy action movies and flamboyant musicals, but there is definitely room in my life for more Wes Anderson. Now I need to check out Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited, and Moonrise Kingdom.

One last screenshot from The Life Aquatic, because I can’t help myself. I just want to live there.

Watch them. Enjoy them. And if you don’t like them. That’s cool. But at least you can say that you’ve seen them. *walks away as the camera changes to slow motion and an upbeat rock anthem starts playing*

Join me next week as we pick back up with the James Bond Overdose series. It’s time for The Spy Who Loved Me, one of the best Moore-era Bond movies. Don’t miss it!


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