You’re Wes Anderson. Your student film gets the attention of a big shot producer who springs for a feature-length remake. That movie, Bottle Rocket, wins you a shot at making your second, your masterpiece, a nearly perfect bittersweet comedy called Rushmore. Rushmore goes over so well, now you take the finely-drawn characters and marvelous ensemble acting of the first two features and expand on each, apportioning that lovely Louis Malle-inspired camaraderie among a bigger cast, flirting with the danger that one misstep, one bad casting choice, one moment that clangs with the distinctive harmony of production design and soundtrack and aloof performances is going to undo your every other small miracle. The reviews for The Royal Tenenbaums are pretty good, but now there are rumblings about formula and British Invasion redux and about how Tenenbaums seemed to lack some of the poignancy of Rushmore.
Maybe you’re feeling claustrophobic—the walls are literally bulging inward with distorted lines from those trademark wide-angle shots. Maybe you’re paying homage to the Jacques Cousteau films that clearly colored your early cinematic impressions, or perhaps a submarine is simply too good an opportunity for your trademark whimsical production design to pass up. Whatever the inspiration, you want to try something new without actually leaving your comfort zone.
Now there you are, out to sea with The Life Aquatic, Portuguese-versions-of-David-Bowie-tunes soundtrack and all. The reviews aren’t quite as glowing, and that box office isn’t what you’d been hoping for either. The whispers that you’re a one-trick pony—or, rather more generously, that your trademarks have become impediments—have gotten louder in some critical circles.
But you’re Wes Anderson, and at your weakest you’re still making better movies than most of those other guys out there. The more your friends and favorite actors water their stock with cheaply ironic piss-takes like Starsky and Hutch and Anchorman, the smarter your movies look by comparison—private reserves of mature comedy that come out like clockwork every three years. Mature comedy that derives a good deal of its wit and wisdom from grownups acting like children and vice versa.
And man, you get so many things so right. The meticulous sets, the nostalgia for childhoods with real hobbies and serious collections, the humorous montage bursts of character and backstory, the mannered dialogue of the self-absorbed and unwilling to commit. Top to bottom, you really have got your own thing. Why would you want to change? Who do these jackasses think they are telling you to step out of your comfort zone?
So you roll out with The Darjeeling Limited, instantly recognizable as a Wes Anderson movie from the typeface of the opening credit of the “short film to be run before the feature.” You’ve given yourself the freedom of a plot that’s even more open-ended than The Life Aquatic’s, and traded the submarine and the sea for a passenger train and the eye-popping backdrop of India. You pack in a couple of Kinks songs up front for good measure, and then forego an original soundtrack in favor of music from the movies of Satyajit Ray. You reach the average number of slow-motion shots in your previous movies in the first half-hour, and the camera zooms crazily and tracks sideways and swivels from expressive to expressionless face like never before.
You do the same things right you always do. You pack your sets with clever detail, detail, detail. Every blue in your India is exactly the right blue, from the weathered train to the bathroom signs in the stations. Your dialogue is precise in its vagueness and fatuous, petrified as always in the worries of childhood: “Are you wearing my belt?” “Did Dad really say you were his favorite?” “Why wasn’t I made a part of this?”
And you show the same maddening tendencies you did in The Life Aquatic: shying away from real emotions in favor of arch and often trivial simulacra, and in doing so undermining your credibility in the token situation that’s supposed to elicit real emotion; introducing romance but not consequence and assuming your audience can be bought off with a copout one-liner; geeking out on style at the expense of substance. “Slow-motion shot with British Invasion song” is your fix for everything, even an Indian funeral. Squeamish, that’s you: squeamish about real emotion. And childish about sex and relationships, notwithstanding the first panty pull-down in your oeuvre to date.
But what else do we want from you? What else would we have you do? We should treasure these fantasies, timeless and unencumbered with realism as they are. Intelligent as they are, if flawed and repetitive. Meticulously beautiful as they are, to the last prop. Wistful as they are, and whimsical, and kitschy in their denial of sex and excrement. The wise among us have accepted that you’ll probably never touch Rushmore again, that we should stop waiting and just enjoy those gently diminishing but still occasionally moving returns.