What's Wrong With Wes Anderson?

A decade after Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, Generation Y's anointed auteur tries for a comeback with Fantastic Mr. Fox.

"That's not the way it happened," he says. "In fact, all those things were kind of happening at once. And in the process of animating, I realized I wanted to be more involved than I thought. So we kind of had to make a system. What ended up happening was, for two years, all I was doing was working on this movie. I thought when the animation would be going on, I could direct another movie. Instead it was all day, every day, all weekends, a continual thing. And it was fun."

Fantastic Mr. Fox's unveiling comes after a lengthy gestation. Anderson, a huge fan of the original 1933 King Kong movie, had wanted to adapt the classic Roald Dahl children's story for years.

"The idea of doing stop-motion and doing this book kind of occurred to me together around the time when we met before — a long time ago," he says. "Before we did The Royal Tenenbaums, I'd already met with Roald Dahl's wife."

Various snafus, including the difficulties Anderson's Rushmore champion (and former Disney Studios chairman) Joe Roth was having getting traction for his startup Revolution Studios, put the project on hold. "So, I did other movies in between," says Anderson.

Those movies have comprised an oeuvre saturated with droll humor, signature color palettes and nostalgia for an often idealized past. His trademark moves — deadpan, retro, British Invasion, eccentricity, pastiche, a fetish for objects/artifacts and, not least, characters in various states of arrested development — have formed a trademark aesthetic. Whether that aesthetic serves to leaven his films' pathos or hedge their emotional bets by creating a safe distance for both auteur and audience is debatable. What isn't, though, is that by the time The Royal Tenenbaums came out in 2001, the highly literate, postmodern, Prozac-popping kids who listened to Elliott Smith and read McSweeney's had made Anderson their Chosen One. And Tenenbaums, which more than tripled the box office of Rushmore while earning Anderson and Owen Wilson an Oscar nomination for their screenplay, was a generational movie.

Then, the air came out of the tires. Released in 2004, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou cost $60 million and took in $24 million. The more modestly budgeted Darjeeling Limited grossed $12 million in 2007, $5 million less than Rushmore. These were commercial failures, sure, but the critics were also starting to pile on. Phrases like "too precious," "cloying" and "detached" popped up more and more in Anderson's reviews.

In one case of hipster cannibalization, The Hipster Handbook author Robert Lanham, writing for the ubercool Viceland Web site, said of The Life Aquatic: "Wes Anderson doesn't make movies anymore. He creates overly precious paintings inhabited by emasculated man-children who knit sweater vests to the accompaniment of Belle & Sebastian while fantasizing that they're macho enough to skin a caribou with a pocketknife. The set pieces to The Life Aquatic are stunning, but watching this film is like visiting the Natural History Museum. It's a beautiful building, but most of its pleasures are filled with lifeless things."

More ominously, and more irresponsibly, Slate pop critic Jonah Weiner came just short of calling Anderson a racist after the release of The Darjeeling Limited. "Wes Anderson situates his art squarely in a world of whiteness: privileged, bookish, prudish, woebegone, tennis-playing, Kinks-scored, fusty," he wrote. "He's wise enough to make fun of it here and there, but in the end, there's something enamored and uncritical about his attitude toward the gaffes, crises, prejudices and insularities of those he portrays. In The Darjeeling Limited, he burrows even further into this world, even (especially?) as the story line promises an exotic escape. Hands down, it's his most obnoxious movie yet."

It's hard to say why the criticism became so vitriolic or why audiences stopped going to his movies. One catches a whiff of schadenfreude for the wunderkind who could be seen on TV around the time of Life Aquatic paying homage to Truffaut while also lampooning himself and all directors in a hilarious American Express commercial. It's almost like someone in charge couldn't wait to serve Anderson his comeuppance for being given too much too soon. It probably didn't help that Martin Scorsese had singled Anderson out as the next Martin Scorsese in an Esquire article published after Rushmore came out.

Anderson admits he was a little taken aback by the failure of The Life Aquatic — his biggest and most beautiful film, brimming with mirth, mischief and longing. It's also the most metaphysical of Anderson films, ending on a scene in which the mysteries of nature — symbolized by the heretofore mythological jaguar shark — swallow whole the existential angst and self-absorption of team Zissou, replacing them with a transcendent awe.

"When it came out, it seemed like it just sank and I didn't really know what to make of it because I kind of thought, Well, this is like a seagoing adventure, this ought to have an audience," he says. "But, stepping back, it's kind of a big, very odd ... not deliberately odd ... I don't know what movie to say it is like. It's just sort of its own thing. Maybe if it came out 20 years earlier in a different environment, it would have been fine ... in a time when MASH is a huge hit, where a movie can be released on one screen and play for three weeks and then it can move to another place and play for a year and people can process it in a different way."

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