All right, so what's your complaint about Wes Anderson? Everybody's got one—he drives more people absolutely insane than any other living director. Are his films too similar for you? Are they too mannered? Too cutesy? Too aloof? Is his aesthetic too predictable? I call bullshit on all those complaints. What auteur doesn't pick at the same themes and ideas over and over again? A great director has one statement or question they spend their entire career communicating to us. What auteur doesn't demand total control over their films? It's literally the definition of auteur.
The aesthetic complaints against Anderson—that his movies are too darling, that they feel artificial, like closed systems—might as well be arguments against film itself. Every film is an artificial, closed system. Naturalism is the lie. By designing the aesthetic of his movies to resemble overambitious shoe-box dioramas at a student art show, Anderson is acknowledging the artificiality of the medium. He's not interested in what happens outside the rectangle of the screen because, as far as the movie is concerned, there is no outside the screen. Once you move beyond the perfect rectangle, nothing exists. Every movie is a solipsist.
As of last week, I've seen every Wes Anderson film, and I've enjoyed almost all of them. The Darjeeling Limited lost me with its dour literalness and meandering camera. I nearly walked out on it when it was released in the theater in 2007, and I haven't revisited it since. The film that I saved for last was Anderson's first: Bottle Rocket. My Anderson fandom started with Rushmore and continued onward. I didn't watch Bottle Rocket before because it was clearly the only film where Anderson is on training wheels—you can tell from the trailer that Anderson doesn't have total control, and the movie's premise felt too obviously post-Tarantino 1990s indie-film, with its diners and quirky morons committing crimes. I avoided it for so long, my avoidance coagulated into stubbornness.
All that stubbornness was for nothing. Bottle Rocket is charming exactly because it's a comic-book-style origin story for Wes Anderson. It begins as a typical 1990s crime movie, with Anthony Adams (Luke Wilson) pretending to break out of a mental hospital so he can indulge the fantasies of his overdramatic friend Dignan (Owen Wilson, who cowrote the film). It's packed with clever moments—I especially like Luke Wilson riffling through a copy of Job Opportunities in Government in the midst of a bookstore stickup (who the hell robs a bookstore looking for a big payout, anyway?)—but you can feel the movie losing interest in the premise as it goes on. Luke Wilson's character falls in love with a maid named Inez, and then Bottle Rocket goes nuts, with jumpsuits and mini-motorcycles, a man named Applejack, and James Caan wearing what appears to be a tiger-tooth necklace.
Bottle Rocket may have started as a generic crime comedy, but by the time Dignan drops his wonderful, meaningless catchphrase—"They'll never catch me, man, because I'm fuckin' innocent"—we're watching a Wes Anderson movie. And Anderson remained a fuckin' innocent, running wild and seemingly free of contemporary influences and criticism. The thing about innocence, though, is that you have to lose it to understand it. Anderson wishes innocence away and wills it back again in all his films. It's an artifice, but it's a good one.
To me, the greatest Wes Anderson film is Fantastic Mr. Fox—it's the one time Anderson exacted near-total control over that perfect rectangle. Aside from their voices, the actors do his bidding. Rumor has it, Anderson physically acted out scenes for his animators to emulate, the way Chaplin would go around his sets and demonstrate to each individual bit player exactly how they were to behave on-screen, so every character in a Chaplin film was Chaplin himself. These puppets look like foxes and badgers, but they're really all Anderson.
At first blush, Mr. Fox, voiced by George Clooney, seems to be the exact opposite of the wild (and somewhat dim) Dignan. He's austere, civilized. But you don't have to scratch too hard to find the pulsing red underneath: In between scolding his son for not being enough of an adult, Mr. Fox tears his food to pieces, growling and gulping like the beast he is. Soon enough, Mr. Fox embarks on a series of heists that are only slightly better planned than Dignan's.
Mr. Fox himself argues the clearest examination of Anderson's themes of innocent hope and brutal reality. One minute, he's despairing in the tininess of life. The next, he's coaxing his animal friends into fighting the evil forces threatening their neighborhood by telling them they are "wild animals with pure talents." In the end, he eulogizes the loss of their home: "They say our tree may never grow back, but one day something will," and it's the kind of hopeful statement that Anderson reserves for only the most divine moments in his movies, when all the artificiality and control builds to a moment of pure honesty and love, captured in a single perfect rectangle.