Sunday, February 20, 2005

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS - the perfect tragicomedy

With the recent release of the deeply disappointing Wes Anderson movie, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, I am taking this opportunity to re-examine Anderson’s earlier movies, starting with what I consider to be the best of all, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. As with THE LIFE AQUATIC, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS is a movie full of eccentric, larger-than-life characters living in a richly-imagined world one degree more whacky than our own. Whether or not you like this film will depend on how far you buy into, and are charmed by, this tragi-comic heightened reality. For my part, I found the family, and therefore the film, utterly winning.

The family is headed by a long absent father named Royal Tenenbaum. He is played by Gene Hackman, who looks like he is having a whale of a time on screen for the first time in years. Royal is a corrupt lawyer who has been ostracised by his family for the past decade, but is seeking reconciliation by any means necessary. In this, he is aided and abetted by his sidekicks, Pagoda and Dusty, the bell-hop at the seedy hotel he has made his home - a classic understated and hilarious cameo performance by
Seymour Cassel. In his absence, the family has been headed by Royal’s wife, Etheline, played by Angelica Huston. Etheline is written as a wonderful mother, ever-concerned with her children’s welfare; decent but not credulous. She is seeing an accountant played by Danny Glover - another good, earnest man. The love scenes between the two combine sweetness and comedy in a manner that recent British mockumentary, CONFETTI, entirely failed to pull off. Meanwhile, the children are all having emotional breakdowns. Richie (Luke Wilson) is a failed tennis pro in love with an unattainable woman; Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is in a loveless marriage and has failed to live up to her early promise as a writer; Chas (Ben Stiller) is in mourning for his wife and is paranoid about the safety of his twin sons, Uzi and Ari. In the mix we also have Ritchie’s oleaginous childhood friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), a wildly popular but talentless writer with a drug problem who has long wanted to be a Tenenbaum, and Bill Murray as Margot’s husband. Will it come as any surprise to regular filmgoers to discover that Bill Murray’s character is a melancholy and world-weary middle-aged man?

As can be seen from these short character descriptions, the Royal Tenenbaums is about a bunch of troubled people, who are drawn back to the family in search of solace – whether or not they were part of the family in the first place. As each character comes to terms with awkward reality, the tone of the movie alternates between tragedy and comedy with such ease as to make this a master-class for screen-writers. Both the tragic and comic scenes are elevated to perfect pitch and the film puts, to my mind, not a foot wrong. Of course, as with all Wes Anderson movies, the production design and sound-track are also out-standing. The attention to detail is staggering - from whimsically designed wallpaper, to the book covers of the novels that the characters write, to the brand of beaten-up old taxis that roam the streets of this re-imagined New York. Meanwhile, the sound-track features mournful songs from Nico, Dylan, Elliott Smith, The Stones, Nick Drake and Lou Reed. However, unlike THE LIFE AQUATIC, the rich design never seems self-indulgent. Where LIFE AQUATIC dragged, so that all the audience had to do was look at the beautiful sets, the foreground action of TENENBAUMS always has us rapt. The cute incidental background details are just that. It is this delicate balance between fascinating foreground action and the hints of a fully developed world behind it that makes TENENBAUMS one of my favourite movies.


Friday, February 18, 2005

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU may be the most disappointing movie of 2005

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU may well be, for me, the most disappointing movie of 2005. This is because it is made by a director, Wes Anderson, whose previous films I have loved without reservation. Given that THE LIFE AQUATIC stars many of the same actors, covers many of the same themes, and lives in the same eccentric, richly-designed world, what went wrong? To cut a long story short, I think "sameness" is the problem. First, there is a problem when we see the same actors portray variations on the same character time and time again. In the case of THE LIFE AQUATIC the key culprit is Bill Murray. In the second half of his career he seems to be perfecting the role of world-weary, painfully self-aware, benumbed wanderer. Granted he is once again fantastic in this movie, but oh my goodness, the whole routine does seem a little tired. It was breathtaking in RUSHMORE, subtley different but still compelling in ROYAL TENENBAUMS, but by the time we have seen LOST IN TRANSLATION and the forthcoming BROKEN FLOWERS... well you get the picture. Ditto seeing Owen Wilson once again as the innocent-idiot; Angelica Huston as the wise-put-upon wife; and let us not forget the obligatory Indian guy. It just seems like Wes Anderson has his zone of comfort as far as characters are concerned.

Similarly, the thematic material is well-worn - disappointed sons and reluctant fathers; super-fan outsiders who desperately want to be part of the Cool group; relationships between the sexes that are fraught with misunderstandings - love triangles and love squares; the difficulty of dreamers to deal with the real world of hard cash; and the difficulty of dreamers to continue to believe in themselves when all around them doubt The Plan. We've been here before. Indeed, we've been here ever since BOTTLE ROCKET.

Moreover, all those incidental but important features of a movie that make up the tone of the picture - production design, sound-track - have taken over the asylum. It used to be that you were compelled to watch a Wes Anderson movie two or three times just to take in the richness of the set design and remember just what that cool track was. But now, the cute little details of set design are all there is. I so wanted to be interested in Steve Zissou 's (for which read Jacques Cousteau's) journey to hunt down the mythic jaguar shark and avenge the death of his partner Esteban. I so wanted to be fascinated by the relationship between Steve and his long-lost son, Ned. But somehow, every time the movie threatened to give us a bit of character development we got another scene with a cute red bobble hat, or crew-member Pele dos Santos (Seu Jorge) singing a David Bowie song. For, in the final analysis, this movie is a triumph of style, tone and mood over the substance that is the narrative arc and character development.

What I guess it all comes down to is that the movie just isn't as funny as TENENBAUMS. Perhaps this is because Anderson's usual writing partner, Owen Wilson, has been replaced by Noah Baumbach? Or perhaps it just signals that what was once magical and fascinating and amusing has now become stale. I tend toward the latter.

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU opened in the US last fall, and opens in the UK today. It opens in France on March 9th 2005, and in Austrian and Germany on March 17th.

Friday, February 04, 2005

OCEAN’S TWELVE – all style, no substance

For those who didn’t see OCEAN’S ELEVEN, the movie that precedes OCEAN’S TWELVE, the set up is as follows. A bunch of thieves and con artists are gathered together by an ex-convict named Danny Ocean (George Clooney). He plans to pull of the most audacious heist of all time: robbing the vault beneath three large casinos in Vegas owned by Ocean’s nemesis, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). Benedict stands for the new Vegas – family entertainment, business practices more suited to an investment bank than the old skool, and ruthless efficiency. To cap it all off, he is dating Ocean’s ex-wife, Tess (Julia Roberts). By the end of OCEAN’S ELEVEN, the gang has made off Benedict’s money and his girl. It was a sweet film. Nicely done comic performances from a superb ensemble cast with genuine chemistry; beautifully slick production design; über-cool sound-track and some nice little pop-culture references. But underlying it all was a well-crafted heist-thriller with some clever and credible plot twists. In short, the flick had something for the heart and something for the head, and gave us another reason to forgive Steven Soderbergh for that horrific SOLARIS remake.

Now, OCEAN’S TWELVE is a different kettle of fish. As it opens, the gang is on the run in Europe with Benedict on their tale demanding the original money back not to mention the interest. As a result, the gang is forced to compete with the French master-criminal, The Night Fox (Vincent Cassel), to pull off three separate jobs in three separate European cities, with a gorgeous Interpol agent (Catherine Zeta Jones) shadowing their every move. So, instead of eleven criminals pulling off one heist against one enemy, we now have twelve people versus another criminal, pulling off three heists against one enemy plus one police chick as well as sundry other complications. Now, I have nothing against complex plots per se, and I had no trouble understanding what was going on. But I did feel that the movie suffered from the clutter of plot strands and characters – none of which are given time to develop and catch our interest. In the end, the movie simply collapsed into a serious of beautifully staged vignettes – good-looking people in slick clothes hanging out in nice hotels. Sort of like the cinematic equivalent of reading Condé Nast Traveller magazine. It gets worse. Around two-thirds of the way through, this movie jumps the shark with a move so self-referential and ridiculous that it undermines the credibility of the whole project. The movie doesn’t so much wink at the audience as reach out, grab your popcorn and pour it over your head. I can only hope that this ridiculous manoeuvre sinks the franchise, but I doubt it.

OCEAN’S TWELVE was released in the US and most of Europe last December, but opens in the UK today.