Wes Anderson is a genius. I won’t argue with that… I can’t argue with that. I like to imagine he gets his ideas from a misanthropic unicorn with pink wings and lonely eyes. His style is both concrete and dreamlike; whimsical production design with a camera that traps his characters in its symmetrical frame. When it comes to auteur directors, nobody creates a world quite like Wes.
Unfortunately, style alone does not make a movie. Style must be supported by something more important… the glue that keeps the audience in their seats… the screenplay.
“Quirky” is a word that many use to describe Mr. Anderson’s characters and plots. I take it a step farther by suggesting it’s the only word that describes his work.
Margot Tenenbaum from The Royal Tenenbaums is the perfect example of “quirky.” Margot was adopted. As a child, she wrote and directed elaborate stage plays about dead animals. She seems perpetually sullen. She ran away from home, lived in a museum, then lost a finger to a misplaced ax. Now, she wears the exact same clothes and thick eyeliner, and sports a wooden finger on her right hand. She smokes. She once married a Jamaican recording artist. Now she’s married to a psychologist. She seems perpetually sullen.
Oh. And her brother is in love with her.
The question I would like to pose to Mr. Anderson is this: what do these quirks add up to? The answer is not “character.” Characters are created by THE DECISIONS WE WATCH THEM MAKE, not the weird things that happened in their past. Margot doesn’t become a real character until the end of the movie when the writers finally force her to chose between two bad things.
In order for quirks to work, they need to be loaded. But how exactly do you load a quirk?
Consider the show Arrested Development. Similar to Margot in Tenenbaums, Buster Bluth loses a hand. This could easily become a one-time gag. But in the hands of skillful writers, this “quirk” plays a pivotal role in Buster’s life, the comedy of the show, and the plot as a whole. For one-and-a-half seasons, the missing hand is the source of numerous jokes. There’s wordplay (“Hand to God,” and “He’s all right”), slapstick, foreshadowing, metaphors, and more. The writers manage to squeeze every last drop of comedic and dramatic value out of this silly missing limb.
This makes me wonder… why was it important for Margot to lose a finger? It’s not that funny. The way she loses the finger isn’t relevant to the story. It doesn’t make her character grow or change. It doesn’t provide new insight into other characters or story lines. And if it works as a metaphor, it’s above my head.
Consider this change. Little Margot Tenenbaum is a spunky child who loves her life and her adoptive family. She writes happy stage plays about cute animals, and she performs them for her friends. But then it happens. Margot’s father slips with an axe and lops off her finger! Her world is turned upside down. She becomes detached. She runs away from home. Her depression pushes her closer and closer to her brother, who then begins to form unhealthy feelings for her.
Now, when we cut back to the present day, her wooden finger has meaning. It reminds us that Margot used to be a fun-loving girl. It builds tension between her and her father. And guess what? It’s still quirky!
I could rant for weeks about the problems with Wes Anderson’s screenplays, but today we stop at empty quirks. Despite the awesome design, original concepts, and hilarious dry humor, Wes Anderson movies lack the drama and depth needed to keep me interested.
(Want more of Buster’s hand?)