October 15, 2012 • An Open Letter to Owen Wilson
on the Eve of the DVD release of Moonrise Kingdom
Dear Mr. Wilson,
For many years, I believe people had the sense that Wes Anderson was the genius behind the three films you co-wrote with him—Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums. This is probably because Anderson’s persona jibes with our expectations for an artistic genius whereas you, as much as I hate to admit it, come off as the class clown.
So it was easy to believe that Anderson was the brains behind the operation, and you were the color. But, having seen all of the Wes Anderson movies—including the ones you co-wrote and the ones you didn’t, it’s now clear to me that we all had it backwards. Clearly, you are the brains, and Anderson is the color.
Because ever since you stopped collaborating with Anderson, things have gone downhill in his work. Don’t get me wrong—some of the movies Anderson made without you showed moments of true brilliance, but none of them were the masterpieces that are Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums—two films that were as much about character development as they were about oddball behavior, unusual costumes, retro props, and quirky sets, the tricks that are Anderson’s specialty.
In fact, after watching four Anderson films you did not co-write, one is left asking the question: what went wrong after Tenenbaums?
There is no doubt that both The Life Aquatic and The Fantastic Mr. Fox hit some high notes, and it’s not unusual for intelligent viewers to defend one or both of them.
The Darjeeling Limited is another story.
Anderson’s fifth is generally regarded by most Anderson fans to be his most disappointing film. That’s reason enough not to talk about it, but I want to talk about it precisely because doing so might lead us to the source of Anderson’s current problem.
In order for absurdity—the hallmark of any Anderson film—to work, it must be paired with emotional honesty; otherwise, the story risks alienating the audience. For instance, in The Royal Tenenbaums, the viewer can overlook the absurdity of Richie listening to old albums on a child’s record player inside a pup tent in the middle of his childhood bedroom because he has just tried to kill himself and is about to tell the woman he loves—his sister no less—that he did it because of her. The audience is so caught up in the depth of Richie’s and Margot’s emotions that we don’t become distracted by the fact that the two of them appear in front of what looks to be a child’s bed sheet decorated with bright red rocket ships and ringed planets.
In contrast, The Darjeeling Limited doesn’t provide an honest moment of emotional complexity until almost an hour into the film—when the three main characters save some Indian children from drowning. Unfortunately, by this point, Anderson has lost most of his audience, viewers who find themselves desperate for an authentic hook on which to hang their emotional needs.
No doubt absurdity is a popular trend in 21st century cinema. We see it in the work of Anderson and in the work of other admired filmmakers such as Charlie Kaufman, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, Diablo Cody, and David O. Russell just to name a few. And, of course, we see it in the work of a handful of their predecessors: David Lynch, Tim Burton, and Jim Jarmusch, for instance. For this reason, it’s crucial to understand how and why absurdity can and cannot work. For evidence of why this issue is so important, please see I Heart Huckabees. See Broken Flowers. See The Darjeeling Limited.
And that brings me back to Wes Anderson without you, Mr. Wilson, and specifically to Moonrise Kingdom.
Simply put, Moonrise Kingdom broke my heart.
It broke my heart because it had so much potential. It was, in fact very close to being a truly great film, another Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums. But, sadly, it failed to get there.
At its core, this ode to young love is an incredibly moving story, a story with emotions that remain with you days later, a story that grabs you by the shoulders and spins you around in circles until you fall happily to the grass, laughing euphorically to yourself. But that grab-your-heart story gets lost amidst far too many knee socks and lightning bolts. It’s heartbreaking to watch because it’s easy to see that with the right help—with your help perhaps—this film could have been as brilliant as the others.
But it’s not.
After much soul-searching and speculation, I’m forced to admit that the only noticeable difference between the great Anderson films and the almost-great Anderson films is you, Mr. Wilson. And once I realized this, it wasn’t hard for me to begin to believe that Anderson—like Sonny without Cher—can’t make great art without you.
And that’s why we need you, Mr. Wilson. We need you to stop whatever you’re doing right now and go find your buddy Wes Anderson. We need you to make certain he never again creates another almost-great film. We need you to tone down his oddball moments, to edit out his Parisian prologues, to say no to his unnecessary narrators in inexplicable long red coats, to curtail his need to document every quirky corner of his detailed sets, and to encourage him to instead capture the provocative emotions of his always fascinating characters. We need you because you might be the only one who can do this for Anderson.
In short, we need you, Mr. Wilson… Wes Anderson needs you… American cinema needs you.
Please send help.