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She's My Rushmore: The Whimsical Films of Wes Anderson

Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson's eighth feature-length film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is set to premiere early next year. A writer and director of comedies since the mid-nineties, Anderson has traveled from the open roads of Texas to the top of the Himalayas and back. I personally cannot wait to see where he takes us next.

Anderson's movies feature many similar aesthetics and share a number of identical influences, including J.D. Salinger, the French New Wave, British invasion music, and Peanuts comic strips. He often focuses upon themes of arrested development, where adults act like children and children are wise beyond their years.

Several of his films are grand ensemble pieces with actors who bring the history of their previous roles with them, fleshing out the characterizations and commenting on their personas. I would like to go through Anderson's work from his first to his last film and possibly pique your interest in checking them out, for I am proud to say we have all seven of them in our collection.

Bottle Rocket from 1996 started as a short about a trio of amateur criminals. Anderson shot it in Dallas with his co-writer Owen Wilson who skyrocketed to quirky stardom soon after. The short caught the attention of super-producer James L. Brooks and a feature-length version was made.

Bottle Rocket promo posterBottle Rocket follows two twenty-something friends. Anthony (Luke Wilson) has recently checked himself out of a mental health facility stay. His friend Dignan (Owen Wilson) is obsessively focused on his future life of crime to the point that he has a 50-year game plan written down in his spiral notebook. Anthony was in the hospital for "exhaustion." "Exhaustion?" his younger sister inquires. "How can you be exhausted? You've never worked a day in your life."

Surprisingly, they manage to pull off a robbery...of a bookstore. The pair and their getaway driver—the only one with a car—strike out on the open road, but everything comes to a screeching halt when Anthony finds himself falling for a maid in the hotel where they are hiding out. Also, their driver steals the car and runs away.

Owen Wilson is the most delightful factor of this film. Audiences would soon see him as the laid back, aloof charmer in films like Wedding Crashers or You, Me and Dupree, but here he is manically detail-oriented, insisting that his crack team of bookstore thieves wear Band-Aids on their noses and signal each other via bird calls. I hope that one day we get to see an equally inspired performance from him again.

Rushmore is the first of Anderson's movies that came to my attention. It's more tightly paced than its predecessor and features some wonderful young actors, including debuting star Jason Schwartzman who made the movie at age 17.

Schwartzman plays Max Fischer, a wunderkind of extracurricular activities at prestigious Rushmore Academy. Though he is the president of dozen of clubs and writes theatrical adaptations of sophisticated fare like Serpico for pre-teens to perform, Max is a terrible student. His potential expulsion from the school is simultaneous with him falling in love with the new kindergarten teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams).

Scene from RushmoreThe film also has the fantastic addition of Bill Murray to Anderson's core of actors. Murray has starred or made appearances in every subsequent film, and the role reinvigorated his career. It marks the start of Murray's transition from high energy goofball to a figure of quiet desperation as we see in later films such as Lost In Translation, which earned him an Academy Award nomination.

Despite this career change, Murray is still wickedly funny. He plays Herman Blume, Max's accidental mentor who is still reeling from divorce and feelings of personal failure. Both find admirable qualities in the other person, but Blume becomes Max's rival when he also falls for Rosemary.

Some viewers have issues with Max's likeability as a character. Much like Holden Caulfield, Max is a love-him or hate-him personality. Anderson's critics often follow this logic as well. You either adore or are repulsed by his precious visual aesthetic and the humor that stems from selfish characters. I was Max's age when I saw the film, and I do believe that has much to do with my enjoyment of the movie. Rushmore operates as a version of The Graduate for high schoolers; it even alludes to that film's famous swimming pool scene.

The best part of the film, in my opinion, is when Max and Blume are on a renegade mission to destroy each other's lives as The Who's "A Quick One While He's Away" blazes around their misdeeds. They engage in reprehensible behavior involving angry bees, wrecked bicycles, and the cutting of a car's brakelines while Roger Daltrey works up a frenzy, shouting "You are forgiven!" in a display of ironic rage. Anderson sure knows how to frame a scene around a piece of music.

The Royal Tenenbaums is an even more grandiose undertaking. The first of Anderson's ensemble pieces, it takes the form of a fictional novel narrated by Alec Baldwin. The Tenenbaums are a trio of child geniuses who have grown up incapable of handling their adult lives in various ways due to their father Royal's atrocious parenting. In a cast featuring a dozen prominent players, most notable are Gene Hackman and Anjelica Houston as family patriarch and matriarch.

Hackman's Royal attempts to win back his children's good graces with deceit, pretending that he has a terminal illness. The family finds themselves back all under one roof, and old connections and grudges between family members are rekindled.

The Royal Tenenbaums earned Anderson and Owen Wilson Academy Award nominations for screenwriting, but as with any Anderson piece, the real glory goes to meticulous set design and art direction. As with the Tenenbaums three-story New York City residence, Anderson and his crew create worlds that you wish you could walk inside of. 

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou was considered a failure upon release. Bill Murray stars as a Jacques Cousteau-like marine biologist embittered that his best years are behind him. Additionally, his mentor has just been eaten by a rare new species of shark. Rather than find out more about this new creature, Zissou plans to avenge his friend and kill the shark.

When a man appears claiming to be his son—the result of an old fling—Zissou finds himself reinvigorated both in spirit and purpose and they set out on the mission. This adventure may have been an example of Anderson biting off more than he could chew.

Though the film is higher budget, it comes off a lot like his previous efforts, only with more shootouts and explosions. After a cool reception, the film has found some praise from fans for the hilarious deadpan delivery of actors such as Jeff Goldblum and Bud Cort as well as its covers of David Bowie songs by Portugese actor/musician Seu Jorge.

Promo poster for The Darjeeling Limited

Anderson's first four movies all have wonderful scores by Mark Mothersbaugh, the frontman for new wave band Devo. Mothersbaugh's normally delicate work culminates in The Life Aquatic with the dynamic piece "Ping Island/Lightning Strike Rescue Op," sort of his own take on a James Bond theme.  Anderson has moved on to composer Alexandre Desplat for subsequent films. 

The Darjeeling Limited feels smaller than the extravagant productions of its two predecessors, but in many ways it's also Anderson's biggest experiment. Filmed in India on a moving train, the picture follows three estranged brothers grappling with their father's recent death.

Adrien Brody joins Anderson's usual collaborators Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman. Though they are intending to go on a spiritual journey, each has his own issues to deal with: commitment, overbearingness, and self-doubt, respectively. All three had different relationships with their father as well, so the sibling rivalries are back in full swing. 

Though there are a few Kinks songs, most of the music comes from prolific Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray whose movies also influenced the film along with Jean Renoir's The River. The Darjeeling Limited sometimes gets lost in the shuffle amongst Anderson's more notable works, but it has a charm of its own. 

Fantastic Mister Fox signaled the first time Wes Anderson had ever attempted a book adaptation, a stop-motion animated film, and a children's movie. Word from the set was that animators were angry with Anderson's lack of understanding of the time-consuming and tedious process, but any apparent trace of that tension is absent.

A scene from Fantastic Mr. FoxRather than using clay like the Wallace and Gromit films, Fantastic Mister Fox harkens back to the Rankin and Bass style that many saw with classic Christmas specials such as Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. The characters' fur ruffles with every movement, and the orange and brown colors make for the coziest of autumnal stories.

Based on Roald Dahl's chapter book, the story follows Mister Fox as he attempts to steal from three of the meanest farmers in the area with the help of his friends and family. It really is one of the best family films of the past decade.

Finally, we have Moonrise Kingdom, which fortunately is Anderson's most mature effort to date. Two young lovers Suzy and Sam make plans to run away together.The thing is, they can not get that far because they live on an island.

Sam has his Khaki Scout skills, and Suzy has packed a lot of books to keep them entertained, but it is not long before everyone on the island is on the hunt for them. The 1960's setting makes it the director's first period piece.

In a great casting turn, Bruce Willis takes a lovely spin on his action hero image as the island's only police officer, one of the few adults who does not act like a total buffoon in reaction to the children's disappearance.

Gone is the deluge of obligatory classic rock songs. As much as I like them, it is nice to see the filmmaker branch out using artists like Hank Williams, Francoise Hardy, and especially the classical and operatic compositions of Benjamin Britten. Also, the film's emotional core is as winning as it is authentic.

Moonrise Kingdom won over even the most ardent Wes Anderson cynics, giving him his highest-rated and second highest-grossing film to date. It seems like more and more people are falling into the love-it category. I certainly hope that this continues with The Grand Budapest Hotel. The ensemble piece will focus on a concierge (Ralph Fiennes) wining and dining his customers in Hungary in the 1930's...until everything goes wrong.

I leave you with a wonderfully dry Bill Murray in crazy pants giving a personal tour of the set of Moonrise Kingdom. Enjoy.