Following the death of film critic Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert would have other film critics, actors and even directors on his show as he tried to find a suitable co-host. Siskel died on Feb. 20, 1999 of a brain tumor. If you ever want to see an eerie look of how bad he was, Google some of those last shows where Siskel talks slower and doesn’t seem to be all too coherent at times.
Ebert had been friends with director Martin Scorsese for many years. So, he invited the famed director on to do a Best of 1990s show. Scorsese selected Wes Anderson’s debut feature Bottle Rocket, released on Feb. 21, 1996 almost three years prior to the day before Siskel’s death, as one of the 10 best movies of the decade. I was no fan of the movie. Neither was Ebert. I have friends who like it. I’ve seen it twice. And twice is about as much any film lover would want to see it.
The movie is very uneven, which is expected for a director’s first flick. It’s very rough around the edges. The plot makes little sense while it’s main focus is on three friends who think they can be big-time criminals. It featured Owen and Luke Wilson before they were big-time celebrities. But you can tell they are trying hard to find their acting chops. Even the inclusion of James Caan as a crime boss seems more like a favor he owed someone rather than a three-dimensional character.
But directors aren’t supposed to hit the bulls-eye their first time out. Scorsese didn’t. Steven Spielberg didn’t. Stanley Kubrick didn’t. Even Joel and Ethan Coen said they’re near perfect debut Blood Simple needed a little polishing as they released it with certain cuts made, actually making it shorter.
Part of me thinks that praise made Anderson feel he was invincible. He had already made Rushmore, which was a very well-made comedy-drama about a precocious teen played by Jason Schwartzman and his relationship with a businessman played by Bill Murray and their feuding over a kindergarten teacher played by Olivia Williams. It was a nice movie and you could sense Anderson was finding his bearings.
I like Rushmore very much and listen to its soundtrack all the time. I’ve seen the movie countless times. It seemed like a breath of fresh air from all the other teen movies that were hitting the theaters at the time starring the latest WB TV actor.
Anderson’s third movie The Royal Tenenbaums was again almost near perfection as it dealt with the interconnecting lives of an extended family in New York City. It’s also one of Gene Hackman’s greatest roles as the patriarch who is far from Daddy Dearest. Luke and Owen play friends again with Luke being a professional tennis player who suffered a mental breakdown and Owen as a popular writer dealing with an outrageous substance abuse problem as well as having an affair with Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow), the adoptive sister of Richie (Luke) and Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller).
Anderson seemed to be diving into William Faulkner territory as Richie is in love with Margot who married a much older man Raileigh St. Clair (Murray) as a neurologist. Their marriage led to his mental breakdown. And Chas is more overprotective of his two sons following a plane accident in which his wife and their mother died.
The movie garnered Anderson and Owen Wilson a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination. The quirky style seemed to fit a family that on the outside looked like the perfect combination of prodigies. Margot is also a playwright and Chas is a business prodigy. All three of them seem to be more mature than their father who fakes having stomach cancer to get back in their lives after his lifestyle is suddenly changed.
Then, in 2004, Anderson released The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, with Murray again as the titular character. He’s inspired by Jacque Cousteau who is trying to make a documentary about tracking down a shark that attacked and killed his friend and partner. At the same time, Zissou’s estranged son (Owen Wilson) had made contact with him. The movie wasn’t as good but had a few inspired moments. Murray running on a deck of a ship wearing nothing but a speedo and robe as he fires a gun as pirates probably is the most memorable.
Even though Wilson appears in this movie, it’s the first one he didn’t co-write. I hate to say this since Wilson has been the constant butt of many jokes for his laid-back persona, but Wilson made the first three movies seem like they actually could be real people. Starting with Zissou, the movies became to focus more on eccentric characters.
Also the movie was too dark and Anderson seemed to be too obsessed with death in this movie. And his movies would go down from there. A lot of his style that was amusing to watch in Rushmore and Tenenbaums began to get overused here. And his next feature The Darjeeling Limited, I struggled to get through.
In 2009, he did a stop-motion animated version of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Again, I tried to watch this but couldn’t get through it. Animation should be easy on the eyes but it’s hard to watch this. Just as fellow Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater used rotoscoping too much on his films, you watch the movie with a little unease. There’s too many quips and quirks. Yes, I know Dahl wasn’t the typical children’s book writer. And I’m a fan of George Clooney, who plays Mr. Fox, but his behavior is a lot like Max Fischer (Schwartzman from Rushmore).
And that’s the problem. Many of the characters in Anderson’s movies are too cocky about themselves. It’s like how Woody Allen makes every lead male role neurotic even if he doesn’t play them. If memory serves, Anderson appeared in an American Express commercial where he came off as Fischer but I think that’s what he’s like in real life. Unfortunately, writing about the same character over and over is getting tiresome.
Directors have their styles but most of them apply them to different stories and plots. You get the sense that even though the plots are different, Anderson is just redoing his movies over and over. In 2012, when I first saw the commercial for Moonrise Kingdom, I knew it was his work immediately. But I told myself, I would give it a chance. I think I watched 15 minutes before turning it off.
The Grand Budapest Hotel was his next feature in 2014 and the only movie of his I was able to sit through in year, even though I had just turned it on as I did other things. It also was his most well received with many awards, including four Oscars mostly in the production designs and costumes. Like a lot of Anderson movies, it looks great. You can see a lot of detail was put into it. Yet, I can’t tell you much about the movie except I found it a little too violent for Anderson’s work.
It did well at the box office and critics liked it. But the story and style just wasn’t for me. Now, The French Dispatch is in theaters. Even though I could spot it as a Anderson movie from the first few seconds of the commercial, it didn’t interest me. Anderson seems to be making movies for film critics and art house film festivals. Like most directors, he got his legion of loyal cast members, most appearing in roles they probably filmed over a handful of days.
I’ll agree that Anderson is an acquired taste and not for everyone, but if you were too look back at those earlier movies, they don’t even seem to be directed by the same person. Maybe Anderson has been reading too much of his press. If Scorsese says one of your movies is the best of the decade, you have to get somewhat of a bighead.
I would say that Anderson has been trolling the critics and arthouse audiences over the years. You hear wild tales of how art critics have mistaken a pile of trash for an art exhibit or how someone accidentally left a half-empty bottle of water on a table and someone thought it was an art exhibit.
I woudln’t doubt if The French Dispatch gets on a lot of Oscar and Golden Globe nomination lists, considering the reviews it’s receiving, but I’m just wondering who’s really watching it or watching others watching them. While I like some arthouse movies, some can overdo it.
In the 1990s, there was a misconception that all independent movies must’ve been good or how in the 1970s, United Artist seemed to do no wrong with their cache of groundbreaking movies. I remember when I saw The Thin Red Line in the theater in the winter of 1999. After it was over, I looked at the other people in the theater and we all had “WTF” expressions. And these weren’t the typical partygoers at Georgia Southern.
I feel like some people in theaters looking at Anderson’s movies the same people in the theater were looking at Zissou movies. Like Quentin Tarantino, he seems obsessed with telling each movie from now from on a certain way.
I still think Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are his best works because they seem like actual movies about people we care about. His movies have become the cinema version of The Starlight Express. If the production looks a lot better than the plot, the audience will focus on that.