Directed by: Wes Anderson. This one was a strange one, so I did something I don’t usually do: I saw it in the theaters, and then I saw it again in the theaters. The first time I saw it, I was pretty unimpressed. Relative to the unanimous glowing reviews it got, and the innumerable anecdotal accounts from friends and fellow Wes Anderson fans, I was expecting another smash hit, another stroke of genius as good or better than his last, Moonrise Kingdom, which to me was his best film yet. So, admittedly, I walked into this thing with high expectations—at minimum, that this would rank among Anderson’s top 3 films. (Basically, I thought that I would like this movie as much or more than Moonrise—a modest request, don’t you think?) So, when I saw it the first time, I found myself less and less charmed as each act unfolded, as each moment seemingly confirmed my worst fears—that my admired Wes Anderson had finally made an outright flop, or (same difference) that I had fallen out of love with his particular brand.
To be clear, I certainly didn’t think that the film was a flop, but compared to the other films, compared to the upward momentum he seemed to have been building, this one felt kind of flat and hollow. Certainly the visual sense is intact, and indeed, embellished—his most extravagant visual statement yet. But this time, for the first time, it felt like the increased aesthetic extravagance came at the expense of the underlying heartbeat. The laughs were nowhere as frequent or as sharply potent as in Life Aquatic; the ensemble casting felt contrived and unnecessary, packed to the brim with spot-the-celeb frivolity, lacking any of the crucial cohesion of Moonrise or Tenenbaums; the overall tone felt too fractured and unfocused, split between the murder mystery/historical allegory/chase thriller/allusions to early cinema/love story/buddy picture, nestled within a nearly Charlie Kaufman-esque story within a story, an overly ambitious feat of character-building and storytelling and one that, ultimately, was more than the film itself could chew. It felt like finally, in fulfillment of the assertions the detractors have been making all along, Wes Anderson really was all style and no substance.
And that didn’t sit too well with me, so I went back and watched it again, this time with my mother (who is generally less of a cynical, critical, film degree fancy pants than I am). And I enjoyed it much more this time.
Why the change of attitude? All the things I mentioned above were still in my mind, but I was trying to see what people were on about. I do try to be open to the idea that any given work of art (or person, or historical event, or food dish) can be interpreted as a masterpiece or an abortion, and that this judgement depends at least as much on the interpretive act itself as it does the film in question. And whereas, the first time around, it felt like the film could only be enjoyable if an already-committed Wes Anderson fan (a Wes Fanderson, if you will) actively filled in the blanks on the missing heart and soul and overall enjoyability of the film with their favourite bits of heart and soul from the previous hits (ie: a new Strokes record), this second time around, I was more inclined to just join in that whole process and see if the material would just allow me to passively enjoy a fucking Wes Anderson movie like I used to. And it pretty much did. All of that other shit notwithstanding, Ralph Fiennes is fucking great to watch in this thing—I could watch him chew that fucking scenery all day. That kid playing Zero is pretty damn charming, and the little romance with Saoirse Ronan (remember how fucking intense she was in Hanna?) is totally quaint and endearing. What at first seemed like an underdeveloped side plot with Jeff Goldblum and Willem Defoe seemed, on second viewing, perfectly functional and acceptable, and Goldblum’s demise is even pretty charming. While we’re on the topic, the overtly gruesome violence in this film—a first in the whimsical world of Anderson—is a truly bizarre element, one that was distracting and off-putting at first but, at second glance, just makes the film more bizarre and hard to digest (and I like that!).
Edward Norton is instantly hilarious in that mustache and costume for some reason, but after his crucial role in Moonrise (which garnered a lot of laughs from doing basically the same thing), it seemed a bit gratuitous. It was also pretty gratuitous to throw in a 30-second cameo from nearly every single Anderson alumnus starting with Jason Schwartzman, going through Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Bob Balaban, Waris Ahluwalia, Larry Pine, and Bill Murray, all of whom are great, but none of whom actually get a chance to do anything great in this film because it’s already jam-packed with great stuff. Harvey Keitel is a pretty good inclusion as a cartoonishly bald and tattooed inmate (and I felt pretty fancy and cultured when I spotted the unmistakable Karl Markovics from The Counterfeiters, relegated to a meager supporting role), and so is the rest of this jam-packed cast. Oh fuck it, let’s play Spot the Celeb! Tom Wilkinson, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Mathieu Amalric, and Léa Seydoux. Fuck.
Okay, I probably won’t get any more critical of this thing. Basically, I re-watched it because I suspected that there is awful lot going on with this movie, tied to the book that I haven’t read, that I just missed. Basically, I worried that I was too dumb to get it. And, second time around, I’m not sure I do get it, but I enjoyed it. I still suspect that the whole thing is a postmodern self-reflexive wink of the eye to Wes Anderson fans, but hey, I’m one of those.