What Makes a Good Wes Anderson Movie?

In Which Twee is on Trial

A few weeks ago the trailer for Wes Anderson’s new movie, The French Dispatch, hit the net, and as was expected a wave of reactions followed. Now normally the response to the latest feature from a beloved American auteur is, not muted exactly, but more niche. Sparking talk and excitement among the film fans far and wide. Anderson, however, is special. For his aggressive stylization and singular brand of filmmaking invariably draws the knives of those who find the mildest irritation at his aesthetic.

In some ways the ire that Anderson receives is amusing. For all of his out sized style he is mostly a director of modest aims. He has the stories he wants to tell, the way he wants to tell them, and has never made a movie for more than $30 million. In the world of ever increasing blockbuster spectacle he’s practically a smudge on the cinematic landscape. And since (almost) all of his movies are original works he’s not one to kick the hornet’s nest of festering internet fandom.

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And yet the accusations fly high when his new flicks come along. When the trailer for The French Dispatch hit, you couldn’t peruse the internet without bumping into headlines boldly proclaiming it to be, “the most Wes Andersonian thing yet.” Many on social media groused about his adherence to a certain style, and theorized why it may fail him again in the upcoming feature. All this for less than two minutes of footage.

So the prosecutors of good taste make their case. Anderson sacrifices story for style, asserts affectation over characterization, and relinquishes himself over and over to the same box of tricks. How many times are we to be offered a film of melancholy characters with family problems coming to emotional breakthroughs in a dollhouse world stuffed with dolly shots and whip pans. Don’t forget the impeccably pulled soundtrack of classical rock and international pop.

This finger pointing got me thinking, what makes a Wes Anderson movie good? Or at least why do others stand out if he’s an artist who’s capable of making only one thing over and over again. And should we really want something else from Anderson on the eve of the release of his tenth feature film. So I did a quick dip into his catalog do investigate the ups and downs of his career to discover what works and what doesn’t over his twenty odd years as America’s premiere arbiter of twee.

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For the most part Anderson is the director of comedies, no matter how melancholy or magical the films get they work in the direction of provoking laughter or amusement. So the films of Anderson’s that tend to flip to the top of the pack are the ones that ground the comedic elements front and center. This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be dramatic materiel in his films, but that it fits more snugly in his doll house world when it serves as an undertone. A note sublimated and used as a point of contrast. All of his best works achieve this goal with supreme elegance. Take The Royal Tenenbaums as an exuberant early success. The film is seeped with longing and regret, epitomized by the sequence where Luke Wilson’s character attempts suicide. That moment plays more strongly because it sits in the same cinematic realm as Owen Wilson’s immortal line reading of, “well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t.”

The sweet and the sour in an Anderson movies serve as contrapuntal pieces of storytelling. One supporting the other without completely subsuming it. That’s why in his least successful films. The balance feels all off. In The Darjeeling Limited Anderson seeks to create a place for  both chuckles and tears, but the latter outweighs the former and starts bringing the whole thing down towards the end of supremely maudlin.

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The Darjeeling Limited reveals his other weakness. Using culture as aesthetic. There’s no doubt that Anderson is an enthusiastic cinephile, and he filters the world around him through the lens of movies. But sometimes the frame of film just lives on a separate plane, one imagined by others. The Darjeeling Limited is a movie about India, in so far that its about movies about India. A grand and loving ode to the work of Ray, Renoir, and The Archers, but not the actual place. Such gestures sit a little better when the filter is pointed to American and European settings, but abroad the whole thing stinks of exoticism. Using culture merely as a way for our perspective characters (who are frequently white) to process their traumas.

Not to harp to much on the misbegotten Indian adventure, but it also revels in one of Anderson’s worst traits. Blunt characterization that frequently feels notes from therapy. Presentation that trade on quirks rather than character, and contrives situations for growth to occur. The most appalling of which is the death of an Indian child that serves as pure catharsis for our white leads. It’s the sacrifice of the other for the betterment of a more familiar (to an American audience at least) group of people.

But Anderson can’t break out of his affectations, merely mutate them and their presentation. Results are varied but he can frequently produce incredibly swift moving, endearing, and visually succulent material. He reconfigures the pieces to find poignancy and humor at all level. The Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps the high point of his work then. Elaborately produced, intricately detailed, but oh so smart in its thematic import.

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Grand Budapest acts as a sort of thesis and actual political statement for Anderson. For he is like M. Gustave, a man aching for a past that is no longer there, or may have been non-existent. And while he can bring joy to those who come to him, he’s ultimately a powerless artist. A man who will belittled and disposed of when its all said and done leaving nothing but a beautiful ruin behind. And the creep of Fascism, and how civility and good manners will not hinder its rise, has become even more resonant in the intervening 6 years.

Such insights and visual wonder is one reason that I appreciate Anderson’s work, and the other is quite simple: his voice is totally idiosyncratic and continues to be well supported by the critics and audiences. Yes he has his schtick, his twee-ness, and his problems with other cultures, but we no longer live a word of Wes knockoffs. A landscape of Garden State‘s and other such eroded novelties. His style is now wholly unique in our cinematic sandbox, and no matter how much he might be the filmic version of cilantro, I’m glad he’s around to make a singular impression.