The Magnificent Anderson
WES ANDERSON'S FASTIDIOUSLY decorated Rushmore would seem to have made the matter clear, yet the running theme of the New York Film Festival press conference for his followup, The Royal Tenenbaums, was whether the moviemaker might not be a bit fanatical in his habit of planning everything in advance. Indeed, the 31-year-old claimed to have conceived of screening his new comedy-drama at his favorite film festival even before he had started writing it.
Seated before a roomful of seasoned cinema scribes, looking royal yet rather fidgety in a blue crushed-velvet blazer, the native Texan credits the inspiration of both New York novels and the New Yorker for his film about an eccentric family of geniuses who live in a half-imaginary Manhattan somewhere near "the 375th Street Y." "It's a New York movie," he says, "so this just seemed like the perfect place to show it. I guess I have a thing about this festival because I try to go to every movie here every year. Last year I missed one of the four-hour Asian movies--there were three of them, and I forget which one I missed." (One senses that the completist's failure to catch that last four-hour Asian movie--if not to remember which it was--is still nagging him a year later.)
Moderating the Q&A, NYFF selection committee member Manohla Dargis playfully reminded the press that the director's immodest screening strategy was realized only after she and her colleagues had agreed to invite the film. But no matter: Anderson is one of those kids--you know the kind--whose combination of charm, privilege, persistence, and talent (listed here in no particular order) generally result in the granting of every wish. (He once succeeded in eliciting a review of sorts from the long-retired and ailing Pauline Kael by getting Disney to set up a private screening of Rushmore at a multiplex near the critic's home in the Berkshires, and then escorting her to it himself.) For The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson admits to having had a tinge of anxiety after Gene Hackman--whom he had vividly pictured in the role of the titular clan's underachieving patriarch--rather sternly instructed the eager young filmmaker not to write the script with him in mind. "Of course I did it anyway," says the director without a hint of self-deprecation, "and then it became a much bigger process of actually getting him to do [the movie]. But he did."
It's hard here not to think of the early scene in Rushmore in which the outrageously precocious and arrogant prep-schooler Max Fischer strolls into a millionaire's manufacturing plant and proposes the funding of a first-class aquarium housed with "barracuda, stingray, electric eel, trout, hammerhead, piranha..."--and comes away with a whale-size check. In a way, each of Anderson's three movies--including his acclaimed debut, Bottle Rocket (1996)--represents an ornate and insular collection of such fantasies fulfilled, not least that of achieving the perfect-looking and -sounding film he had envisioned while writing it.
Where The Royal Tenenbaums threatens to break this winning streak (reviews aside, for the moment) is in its even greater dependence than Rushmore on a wall-to-wall soundtrack of melancholy Sixties and Seventies pop songs. True to form, the director included these ideal tracks in both his script and his festival print before getting them properly licensed. Kael, Dargis, and Hackman may have been a cinch to win over. But for the rights to "Hey, Jude," to which Anderson has very precisely cut his Royal prologue (the beginning of the song's soaring "nah-nah-nah" portion matches the image of a bird taking flight), the kid is going to have to deal with none other than stingy Beatles proprietor Michael Jackson. And that's just one case among dozens that the director and his lawyers will need to settle before the film's proposed release date of December 26.
Part of what might seem to bode ill for Anderson here is that The Royal Tenenbaums--like Orson Welles's legendarily compromised The Magnificent Ambersons (with which it has other striking similarities)--is largely about how you can't always get what you want. Moreover, this is a theme that the obsessive tactician, believe it or not, didn't anticipate during the writing. "So much of the [Royal] story is about accepting that you're not what you once were," says Anderson, who began authoring plays when he was ten years old. "And there's a lot of pain associated with that. It wasn't like I planned that to happen in the story--it just sort of emerged."
Early reviews of The Royal Tenenbaums have unflatteringly likened Anderson to the overbearing protagonist of Rushmore, and so one hopes the filmmaker will handle disappointment a little better than Max Fischer, whose "I wrote a hit play!" tantrum appears too uncannily well observed to be pure fiction. Still, the drama of the gifted child's response to frustration is always a great subject--inviting the question of whether Anderson might already be in the process of planning his next movie.