YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Perspective: Look beyond the facade in Wes Anderson's films

Beneath the writer-director's distinctive visual aesthetic in works such as 'Moonrise Kingdom' and 'The Royal Tenenbaums' is a vulnerability.

July 01, 2012|By Sheri Linden, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Jared Gilman, left, as Sam and Bruce Willis as Captain Sharp in Wes Anderson's movie "Moonrise Kingdom."
Jared Gilman, left, as Sam and Bruce Willis as Captain Sharp in Wes Anderson's… (Focus Features, Focus Features )

To varying degrees, all filmmakers create worlds. But when people say this of Wes Anderson — and invariably they do — they're talking about an überspecific sensibility. With its handmade aesthetic, signature curios and saturated colors, the Anderson cosmos is identifiable in every frame of his films.

His seventh feature, the 1960s-set comic drama"Moonrise Kingdom,"bears all the hallmarks of his uncommon style, in perhaps their most compelling configuration. Since its prestigious slot as the opening-night selection at Cannes, the film has emerged as one of Anderson's best-received productions. Beyond the enthusiastic critical response and muscular box-office performance is the way the dreamy-angsty tale of first love is connecting with people — charming even filmgoers who preface their praise with the qualifier that they don't usually like Wes Anderson movies.

As in his preceding half-dozen features, Anderson doesn't inflict moralistic lessons on his characters, but that's not to say they skip through unscathed or without figuring out a thing or two. The film opens with the sound of a brewing storm, which will turn into a merciless hurricane named Maybelline. The young protagonists, determined to be together, will awaken to the power of destructive forces, and that's not a bad thing.

PHOTOS: The unique filmmaking style of Wes Anderson

In collaboration with a core ensemble in front of and behind the camera, the Texas-born writer-director has crafted one of the most distinctive bodies of work in contemporary cinema. And when a body of work is readily identifiable, it's also ripe for parody. In anticipation of the release of "Moonrise Kingdom," online magazine Slate devised Wes Anderson Bingo, pinpointing the trademark ingredients that appear in just about every Anderson film, beginning with his 1996 debut, "Bottle Rocket" — among them the childish adult, slo-mo shot set to music, precocious child, ethnic stereotype and beret.

The list in the form of a game (board games being yet another Anderson fave, most vividly conjured in the closet packed with them in "The Royal Tenenbaums") is both an affectionate sendup and a reminder that his films tend to polarize audiences, who respond to his symbology as either a magic-tinged language or a worn-out shtick.

If you can't get past the carefully curated surfaces of Anderson's movies, his tales of broken families and not-quite-coming-of-age can have an airless, hermetic quality or feel overly precious. The authorial flourishes become tics, the visual motifs fetishes that serve only to distance viewers from the wounded heart of the stories he tells.

But it's that vulnerability that Anderson imitators rarely get.

Sometimes it takes a second viewing for the tenderness behind the façade to fully register, for the museum gallery of types in "Tenenbaums," for example, to become animated by the director's compassion. The artificiality of his films' surfaces expresses a childhood ache for a fantasy world. Beneath the whimsy of the jaguar shark and crayon ponyfish ("The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"), Dalmatian mice ("Tenenbaums") and star-speckled apples ("Fantastic Mr. Fox") lies an idealistic yearning. The movies embody a longing for escape but aren't escapist.

With his pitch-perfect casting and gentle, unfashionably raunch-free comedy ("No Vulgar Language Allowed," a barroom sign announces in "Bottle Rocket"), Anderson constructs characters that are specific to his stylized terrain but which defy caricature. If detractors see something cartoonish in them, it's probably because of the formal, nonvernacular way that many of them speak. In a recent interview with NPR's Terry Gross, Anderson said that his "interest as a writer [is] a sentence that's got a surprise in the way it's put together."

The subdued, borderline flat-affect tone of Anderson's dialogue (his writing partners have included Owen Wilson, Noah Baumbach and Roman Coppola) is an example of the way artificiality cuts to the essence in his films; life's most devastating confessions and confrontations so often transpire under cover of the utmost politeness. This facet of his work lends his stories a singular comic poignancy when his teenage characters try to approximate adult-speak, notably in "Moonrise" and his second feature, "Rushmore."

Max Fischer, the obnoxious/endearing 15-year-old protagonist of "Rushmore" (a career-launching role for Jason Schwartzman), is a diminutive monument to extracurricular overkill. "You seem to have it figured out," Bill Murray's Mr. Blume tells him, the weight of grown-up disappointment in his every gesture and glance. Max hasn't figured it out, of course; he may have landed a private-school scholarship after writing "a little one-act about Watergate," but he's still a motherless boy who wants to be loved.

Los Angeles Times Articles