Wunderkinder: A Royal Shame

A young man named Anthony, inmate of an Arizona mental
hospital, says a friendly good-bye to his psychiatrist and then prepares to shin
down the wall on a rope of knotted sheets. Anthony's stay at the hospital has
been voluntary; but, as he explains to his psychiatrist, he must pretend that he
is escaping for the benefit of his friend Dignan, who is waiting--small, blond,
and highly charged--in some shrubbery on the edge of the grounds.

"He's got this whole escape thing worked out, and he's just so excited about
it," says Anthony. "I mean, look how excited he is!"

The two men stare out at Dignan, an oxygenated imp bouncing around in his
bush; Dignan, wearing black leather gloves, obligingly flashes signals off a
little mirror and makes complicated bird-noises.

"I gotta do it this way, Doctor Nichols," says Anthony. "I gotta go out the
window."

The psychiatrist sighs. "Okay," he says. "But could you make it fast?
This--this doesn't look good."

So begins the 1996 film Bottle Rocket, director and screenwriter Wes
Anderson's first, and Anderson's world is laid out for us: a limbo between
pathology and wellness, childhood and adulthood, playtime and reality, enthusiasm
and weary maturity. The hero flares in the bush, a life of undimmable zest:
Whether you're really escaping or not, what's important is to act as if you are.
The play's the thing, always. Besides, in every way that matters, Dignan is
indeed springing his friend from the booby hatch. He has trekked into the desert
to scoop up the feckless and recently deranged Anthony and stick him in a
Greyhound headed home. It's a rescue, and a brave one. He is bringing his friend
back to life.

Once he has Anthony settled in a bus seat, Dignan whips out his seminal text:
the 75-Year Plan. The Plan is scribbled into a school notebook, with sections and
subsections numbered and alphabetized. In a brief over-the-shoulder shot we
glimpse the headings: "Ways of Success," "Opportunities,"
and--tantalizingly--"Outside Interests." A friend of mine, inspired, crouched
scribelike over his VCR, working the pause button until he produced a handwritten
redaction of this extraordinary document: part reverie, part self-improvement
program, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People crossed with the first
three chapters of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Dignan has imagined a life of genial crime for himself and his friend--nothing
more or less than Huck and Tom's "high-toned" gang. Riches and culture are in
store. Beach houses are mentioned, as is the importance of meeting people from
foreign countries. "Predictability" is chastised as a "Negative Value." Outlines
for the "2nd Five Years" include a brief breakdown of the Robin Hood Principle
("Establish goodwill within community"; also, make "Anonymous donations"). And
the final section, "Living into 21st Century," is prefaced with the very sensible
disclaimer that "Anthony as you know there can be no way of looking this far
ahead." The goals laid out for this hazy futurity are appropriately modest and
general. ("1. Remain flexible. 2. Don't be too derogatory.") Yet there is an
irresistible reference to "honorary degrees" further down the page. Anthony
raises his eyebrows, bemused and grateful. Within hours, the two master criminals
will be burgling his parents' house.

Dignan is played by Owen Wilson, who is also Anderson's writing partner. As an
actor, Wilson can do no wrong: A comedic golden child, haloed with uncanny
laughter, he has wandered redemptively through many an awful movie. He talks with
slow, disbelieving relish, rising to a melodic whine when he gets excited.
Whatever the role--a dubious cowboy in the Jackie Chan vehicle Shanghai Noon
or a downed USAF pilot in the recent movie Behind Enemy Lines--and
whatever the situation, his characters always seem to be pursuing some space-age
agenda of personal development. Of all of them, Dignan is the greatest. In
Dignan, Anderson and Wilson have created an American classic. His conversation is
a chaotic series of briefings, freely mingling the jargons of personal trainer,
positivity guru, and corporate strategist. It's the language of American
possibility, the oral tradition, handed on like a burbling flame from Tom Sawyer
to Norman Vincent Peale to Henry Rollins. It never goes out, this
entrepreneurial, autohypnotic, vigorously secular voice, something between a
hustle and a prayer. It can do, literally, anything. (Of course, the capacity for
self-delusion is crucial.)

Anderson's second film, Rushmore (1998), matches innocence with
experience in the friendship between Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a
precocious 15-year-old schoolboy, and Herman Blume, a middle-aged pipe mogul
played by Bill Murray. Max, a blazered and bespectacled Iggy Pop, has a lust for
life. At his beloved Rushmore Academy, he has made a religion of the
extracurricular: He is president of the French Club and the Rushmore Beekeepers,
and founder of the Bombardment Society. He writes a thrilling stage adaptation
of Serpico for his own company, the Max Fischer Players. Like Dignan, Max
is an enthusiast.

Herman, however, is adrift, almost washed up. "What's the secret, Max?" he
asks, observing in wonder Max's whirl of schemes and self-promotions. Sadness
comes off him. It's the unique effect of Bill Murray--his glum, soiled face, the
impression he gives of a man swaying slightly in the aftermath of some huge
rebuke, some cosmic corrective to hubris or exuberance that has left him with his
ears ringing and his pride numbed. Murray's timing is not the jab-jab,
quick-release, anxiety-and-discharge shtick of the stand-up comedian but an
eternal yawn that spans the microseconds between thought and expression--the
immeasurable can-I-be-bothered caesura between Herman's son telling him, "Pull
your head out of your ass!" and Herman's twisting around in his car seat to give
the boy a thick ear.

Max, like Dignan, has his own way of putting things. Listen to the explosive
clash of registers as he gets to know Herman.

Max: So--you were in Vietnam, if I'm not mistaken?

Herman: Yeah. [A pause.]

Max: Were you in the shit?

Apart from being absurdly funny, this tells us a good deal about Max: his
weird formality, his bluntness, his thirst for adventure, and his weakness for
macho slang. In just two lines, the poles of his character are glowing. The
scrollwork of Max's talk-- "As per our conversation, ... Moving on, ... One
footnote, ..."--recalls in a curious way the stratagems that a stammerer will use
to tip himself into speech, the little byways past blockage and into utterance.
At any rate, Max's talk, in all its homely pretension, has an air of being
defined by its obstacles--his low birth, for example ("I'm a barber's son"), or
his notable lack of academic success. It's a sort of emergency flying machine, an
aspirational contraption that might just take him where he wants to go.

Such hair-trigger sensitivity to language makes most Hollywood
dialogue sound like the modulations of a fire alarm. Anderson and Wilson are
experts, safecrackers, flies on walls. They have a knack for going undercover in
plain, everyday talk, almost surreptitiously injecting the serum of novelty and
unexpectedness. Take Max's father in Rushmore: "Well, well, well," he says,
welcoming an end-of-the-rope Herman Blume into his barbershop. "Look what the cat
dragged in." Or Dignan after his getaway driver makes a rather too private
getaway: "Bob's gone! He stole his car! He flew the coop while we were sleeping!"
The cat and his draggings, the coop that gets flown--these are well-worn
doorknobs of American speech. It takes a batlike ear to give this kind of
language life and character: in the first case, the character of a benign and
skeptical 60-year-old barber, totally comfortable in his idiom; in the second,
that of a half-crazed young man with culturally nostalgic outlaw fantasies.

Rushmore was a hit--not a blockbuster, but a much-heralded success. And
there is a sense of prophetic completion about this: Rushmore is largely a
comic meditation on excellence, on prizes, on being top of the class; so the
wreaths and garlands heaped upon the film and its actors (Golden Globe
nominations, Critics Circle Awards, Best Film accolades) are hilariously apt--the
stuff of Max's most lucent and high-flying daydreams. Anderson and Wilson were
hot, and their latest film, The Royal Tenenbaums, has been hotly
anticipated.

And guess what--they've blown it. If Anderson and Wilson were a great rock
band, The Royal Tenenbaums would be their third album--the cocaine album,
greedy with visions, where they aim too high while simultaneously failing to
challenge themselves properly, the album where their girlfriends are models and
they have just fired their manager. Blazing with star power and racing with
ideas, Tenenbaums never comes together. The story of a grand New York
family--three eccentric children, a mother, and a scandalous father--fallen on
hard times, the film shows signs everywhere of an excess of design. The attention
to detail so lovingly expressed in Bottle Rocket and Rushmore has
become orgiastic--sets swarming with exotica and corroded by bric-a-brac, every
whim indulged.

The characters are similarly baroque. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), the talented
but blocked playwright, has a wooden finger and pack-a-day habit that she has
concealed from her family for 22 years. Richie (Luke Wilson), once a famous
tennis player, still sports his headband and spends a lot of time at sea. Chas
(Ben Stiller) lost his wife in a plane crash and wears nothing but red jogging
suits. And so on. Bottle Rocket has two main characters, and Rushmore
three; Tenenbaums has many. There are the Tenenbaum parents, Royal and
Etheline (Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston), their children Margot, Richie, and
Chas, Mrs. Tenenbaum's suitor Henry (Danny Glover), and the kids' drug-addled
childhood friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). It's quite a crowd, and everyone's
cracking up.

Anderson's other films are set in a world of griefs discreetly alluded to
and breakdowns just recovered from. The action of Bottle Rocket takes
place against flat southwestern spaces, smooth prospects, and limitless green
lawns that gently ironize the antics of the characters; yet there is anxiety in
this distance--the horizon-tug of collapse, of the depression from which Anthony
is escaping. Similarly, Max's mother, we discover early in Rushmore, died
when he was seven, and this loss hangs over the "sharp little guy." But in
Tenenbaums, where every major character is in a state of crisis--Chas's
bereavement, Margot's block, Richie's love for Margot, and so forth--such gentle
retroactive shading is impossible; the amount of baggage brought to the screen is
simply overwhelming. Montage follows montage, trailing back into the abyss. So
much exposition is needed that there's nothing for it but that most transparent
of narrative cop-outs, that abdication of screenwriterly responsibility, the
voice-over (supplied here by Alec Baldwin).

If the idea was to give Tenenbaums a fabular, bedtime-wondrous glow,
it doesn't work. Baldwin's voice, a ream of rugged blah, is an immediate
irritant. Royal Tenenbaum announces to his family, "These past six days have
been some of the best days of my life," and Baldwin is quickly in our ear with
this blundering confidence: "As soon as he said it, Royal realized that this was
true." It's like a stranger in the row behind you--a stranger with bad
breath--leaning forward and explaining the film to you in a rasping whisper.

There are problems, too, with the soundtrack. Anderson has already proved that
he has the sharpest director's ear for classic rock since Martin Scorsese, as
well as his own style of mood music. In Rushmore the pounding tambourines
and gonglike cymbals of the British Invasion are perfectly offset by the
glaucous, mannerly interludes of Mark Mothersbaugh's score, with its sleigh bells
atinkle. But in Tenenbaums, not one track cleaves to its moment like the
Stones' "2000 Man" did in Bottle Rocket or the Who's elephantine blastings
did in Rushmore--not even the vision of Margot Tenenbaum descending in
slo-mo from a bus, Gwyneth in furs, her disastrous beauty tracked by Nico's
"These Days." Somehow, it doesn't quite gel. And to end the film with the queasy
candy of the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B"--that, as Max would say, is just rude.

Of course, there are flashes of the old magic. Hackman's portrayal of Royal, a
man who fakes a mortal illness so that the family he abandoned will love him
again, is a masterpiece of gravelly insincerity. Queried about the nature of his
disease, he answers: "I've got a pretty bad case of stomach cancer." Attempting a
rapprochement with his estranged and bitter children, he announces, "Of course
I've missed you all like hell, my darlings." The Anderson-Wilson ear is intact,
and the heart still beats beneath.

Imaginative bloat is not terminal. We can hold out the hope that having
overextended themselves, having supped with horrid luxury, Anderson and Wilson
will return, hung over and perhaps slightly shriveled, to what they do best:
recreating our world.

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