Words: Carrie-Anne Elsden
With The Grand Budapest Hotel opening last week, we take a look back at critics’ changeable relationship with writer/director Wes Anderson through a career spanning multiple Oscar nominations (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Fantastic Mr. Fox) to downright flops (The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou) – and ask the question, has this iconic director finally won over the critics for good?
Wes Anderson’s career has always been a curious one. Known for several ‘trademark’ elements that include impressive ensemble casts, smart dry humour and beautifully constructed worlds, as well as using recurring themes and collaborators, it is interesting to see how Anderson’s reputed ‘style’ has fared in front of the critics film by film.
Anderson’s break came in the unlikely form of James L. Brooks, successful executive producer, who picked the director’s short Bottle Rocket from the 1994 Texas Film Festival to turn into a full length feature. Bottle Rocket’s ambling tale of two brothers-cum-wannabe-burglars doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for a Hollywood studio and Anderson, along with co-writer Owen Wilson, struggled with studio producers to agree on a final script. After a two year production, many scenes were ultimately cut and producers were left questioning the film’s appeal. Bottle Rocket made barely a ripple either critically or commercially. The few reviews that did surface were apathetic at best, though some did cite the style of dialogue as a particular highlight.
The dream was not over before it had even began though, as two years later Rushmore (1998) sparked a much livelier response amongst critics. Centred on the trials of precocious student (Jason Schwartzman in an incredible debut performance), critical reaction was by and large extremely positive, commending the nuance between comedy and drama, and Anderson’s overall ‘alternative’ mode of filmmaking. The film was a sleeper hit with critics and by the time of his next film’s release three years later, there was a definite audible buzz around this young filmmaker.
Marking the unquestionable high of Anderson’s career thus far both critically and commercially, The Royal Tenenbaums (2002) was brimming with A-list fare: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson. This problematic family’s saga thrilled critics and gained Anderson his first Oscar nomination for best screenplay. The post-Tenenbaum high was relatively short-lived, however, as Anderson’s follow-up film sent his reputation into a nose dive. As Anderson’s largest budget to date so far, a cool $50m, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou(2004) is the director’s biggest critical and commercial flop. Not even its star-studded ensemble, including big names like Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe could save the film at the box office or in reviews. The style was there, more lavish and colourful than ever critics noted, but the substance gone.
Responding to the dire reception Life Aquatic garnered, Anderson’s next production The Darjeeling Limited (2007) was massively scaled back, but again commercial success was out of reach and reviews reflected mixed and modest feelings. Some critics congratulated Anderson’s maturity as a filmmaker whilst others criticised him for regurgitating the same themes over again.
Success for Anderson was to be repeated though, via the unlikely guise of Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). With stop motion animation, his first adapted work and of a children’s book at that, Anderson proved his ability to take on different, more challenging modes of filmmaking and to pull it off. Anderson’s take on Dahl’s famous tale worked, critics decided, and no doubt featuring the massive names of Meryl Streep and George Clooney helped matters greatly.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012) secured critics resolutely in Anderson’s corner, surpassing Tenenbaums’s popularity in reviews and nearly matching its commercial success. Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Ed Norton, Tilda Swinton and Harvey Keitel each proved again how Anderson screenplays always attract fantastic actors. Still containing all those trademark ‘quirks’, the overall feeling of the film’s critics were that Anderson had distilled and appropriated these in perfect quantities and combinations. Moonrise’s success was acknowledged with another Academy Award nomination for Anderson’s screenplay.
The Grand Budapest Hotel has opened its doors this weekend already to many glowing reviews. The film was awarded the Jury Grand Prix at the Berlin International Film Festival and was nominated for the Golden Berlin Bear. It has taken several attempts, but it would appear, for now, that Anderson has finally won over his critics and that his ‘style’ of filmmaking is currently the darling of reviews.