From what I can remember, my first experience of Wes Anderson’s work was watching The Royal Tenenbaums. I don’t remember exactly how long ago this was, or the circumstances, but I do clearly remember that after it was over my response was pretty much, “Well, that was weird.”
The film felt stylized and artificial, like life held at arm’s length, and slightly off rhythm, the characters acting as if in a pageant. Still, there must’ve been something that drew me back, because I kept watching (I recently figured out that previous to Moonrise Kingdom I had seen every Wes Anderson film other than Bottle Rocket and Fantastic Mr. Fox). Any further interest in Anderson’s films should have been quickly scuttled by Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, whose main protagonists came off as obnoxious jerks. Then Moonrise Kingdom arrived in 2012, and my skepticism was somewhat melted by the nostalgic young love of Sam and Suzy.
But it was The Grand Budapest Hotel that really did it for me. It may have had something to do with Ralph Fiennes’ inspired performance as the charming, arrogant, prim, and at times fragile Gustave H. For the first time I was able to truly see the humanity in Anderson’s work—that his films, with all their stylish quirks, are about real, often deeply broken people. In rewatching his films, I’ve come to realize, as Jeffrey Overstreet puts it, “There’s a beauty to the way Anderson, movie after movie, finds the missing piece in every character, portrays them compassionately as they seek to replace that piece with the wrong things, and then offers them grace after the damage is done.”
While much is made of the surface of Anderson’s films — the retro look, the carefully arranged shots, the quirky behaviors and obsessions of his characters — what’s happening under the surface is just as important, for it is most often out of their deep internal brokenness that the characters act the way they do.
Take for example, Max Fischer, the protagonist of Rushmore. He comes across as narcissistic, petulant, and out of touch. This is how I perceived him the first time I saw the film. But a closer look reveals all sorts of clues as to why he acts the way he does. Rushmore is an elite prep school, but Max is there on a scholarship. That he is probably ashamed of this comes across in the fact that he continually tells people his father is a neurosurgeon, when he’s really a barber. Max is also an outsider at the school; his only friend is a younger student, Dirk Calloway. But Max tries hard to make himself an insider with his plethora of extracurricular activities. These clues reveal a deeply insecure 15 year old kid who is masking his insecurities with braggadocio.
This is not Max’s deepest issue though. We learn throughout the film that Max has been profoundly affected by the loss of his mother to cancer when he was 7. We find out that it was his mother who got him into Rushmore by showing the headmaster a play he wrote in 2nd grade. He continues to write his plays on a typewriter with the words “Bravo Max! Love, Mom” inscribed on the case. At his lowest moment in the film, he sits by her gravestone as he converses with Bill Murray’s character Herman Blume. And finally, at the end of the film he dedicates his latest play to the memory of his mother.
The death of his mother also contributes to his obsessive, quasi-romantic relationship with the new first grade teacher, Ms. Cross. In part I think he seeks to fill the void of motherly affection that has been lost to him. When he finds out that Ms. Cross has lost her husband, he also perhaps hopes to form a common bond over their shared losses.
None of these revelations excuse Max’s behavior, but they reveal that his actions are, as Matthew Dessm says, “a calculated campaign of distraction from genuine pain”
Though Max never directly comes out and addresses this pain in his life, he comes to realize how much his actions have hurt others, and in the climax of the movie, his Vietnam War based play seeks to bring together all the characters and honor the memory of those who have passed.
Bill Murray’s oceanographer Steve Zissou is another Anderson protagonist that totally turned me off initially, but that I’ve come to love over time. At the outset of the film, Steve’s problems are a little more obvious than Max’s. In the first half hour of the film, we learn that his longtime collaborator and friend Esteban was killed by a mysterious shark on his team’s latest expedition, his marriage to the much more talented and wealthy Eleanor is on the rocks, he hasn’t had a hit documentary in 9 years, Kentucky pilot Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) may or may not be his son from a former lover, and a bond company stooge and a beautiful pregnant female reporter (Cate Blanchett) doing a cover story on him will be accompanying his upcoming revenge expedition to find the killer shark.
In the ensuing trip, Zissou veers between arrogance and childishness as he engages in an on-again-off-again love triangle with Ned and Blanchett’s reporter character, and he recklessly leads his crew through pirate-infested waters after the shark. In front of the crew he puts on a brave face, but in private moments he wonders, “What happened? Did I lose my talent? Will I ever be good again?” Like Max, his off-putting exterior betrays deep inner hurt. As Ryan Reed writes, “On the surface, Zissou is a washed-up asshole: envious of his would-be son; blatantly rude to his deep-sea skeleton crew; emotionally distant from his wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston). But beneath that hard exterior is a vulnerable child…”
As the expedition begins to spiral out of control and the consequences of his actions become more severe, Steve says to the ever present crew cameraman in a humiliating moment: “We’ll give them the reality this time. A washed up old man with no friends, no distribution deal, life on the rocks, people laughing at him, feeling sorry for himself.”
Toward the end of the film, after the tragic death of Ned, Steve finally faces up to who he is. After reading the reporter’s story, he admits, “Well, at first I was a little embarrassed. Obviously people are going to think I’m a showboat and a little bit of a prick. But then I realized that’s me. I said those things, I did those things. I can live with that.”
In the film’s climactic scene, Steve and the rest of the characters finally descend to the ocean depths to see the elusive creature that has haunted him the entire film. I’ll let the scene speak for itself:
Watching Wes Anderson’s films, and meeting and getting to know some of his memorable characters, has taught be something about empathy. I’m reminded through them that sometimes the very people who are rubbing me the wrong way may be going through the worst of hurts. That, in the words of the famous saying, I should be kind, for everyone I meet is fighting a great battle, whether that be a 15 year old kid struggling with social exclusion and personal tragedy, or a washed up oceanographer longing for the glory days.
Chris currently teaches writing and literature to community college students in Massachusetts. He is the author of six books of poetry, and can probably be found reading a book, drinking chai, and wearing flannel. In 2018 he and his wife Jen co-founded The Poetry Pub, an online community for poets. He enjoys walking in the woods, hanging out in coffee shops, and poking around used bookstores.