This weekend, Anderson's latest offering, The Grand Budapest Hotel, opens nearly two years after his last film, Moonrise Kingdom - one that proved to be an opening-weekend powerhouse. With the amount of marketing we've already seen for this picture, it's pretty safe to say that Fox Searchlight are expecting big things. Since his first feature movie, Bottlerocket, failed to become a commercial success in 1996 (and was rejected by every film festival Anderson submitted it to), it's taken eighteen years for us to fully wake up to the whimsical tales which make us go gooey inside with their bright colors, peculiar dialogue, and expert combination of set design and filming technique... Oh yeah, and let's not forget that yellow Futura font.
Over the years, Wes Anderson's cult following has begun to seep into the mainstream. While his movies still appeal mostly to an art-house audience - with fleets of sophisticated hipsters falling over their Paul Schrader scripts in a desperate scrabble towards the closest independent cinema exhibiting Anderson's latest work - his brand of comedy and idiosyncratic characters are enough to make almost any film fan salivate.
And it isn't just us mere moviegoers who have fallen steadily in love with the indie auteur's work. Anderson's managed to convince the likes of James Caan, Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Jason Schwartzman, Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bill Murray, and Edward Norton to take roles in his movies - and they just keep on coming back! George Clooney even swapped silver fox for animated fox in Anderson's take on Roald Dahl - a strange sight indeed.
But, the visual obsessing that has made Anderson such a cult figure - creating nostalgic, inviting worlds his fans relish diving into - is also what others find irritating. So much so, in fact, that there's been some hefty backlash against Wes and his filmmaking style. One critic has commented:
"Hate" is a strong word, one that I was willing to take back for the sake of fairness when this task was conceived, however, after watching the 4th of the five films on my agenda, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a two-hour film that took me roughly four hours to finish, "hate" is the only word that could fully convey my reaction to an Anderson film.
Why? Well, the accusations range from Anderson being nothing more than a designer stuck in the 70s, to being a one-trick pony, 'samey', or "fussy and mannered." One blog even comments that:
The only reason Wes is making movies is because of James L. Brooks and other white elite fascinations with geek-chic-youth.
Another scorns Anderson's latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, saying that it is Wes "at his worst":
... In this film, the tendency is an avalanche of sickening sweetness... The Grand Budapest Hotel is dazzling, exhausting but bereft...
And what ties most of the criticisms together is the observation that Wes' work is largely shallow:
It's like patrons in a modern art gallery oohing and awing over some wood and wire not realizing that they're actually looking at the mount for artwork that hasn't arrived.
Surprisingly, a lot of people don't like this guy.
That said, there are some real problems with Wes' work, which often pass under the radar. Specifically, his portrayal of class and race.
Anderson's movies are about rich, white people almost exclusively. Of course, having movies where the protagonists are white and upper-class is unproblematic for entertaining - and even fantastic - filmmaking, but Anderson never makes a moral point about his own casting disparities and shirks his 'responsibilities' to educate about social inequality. He'll tell the story of a wealthy white family who has no real conflict in their lives except for the ones they create themselves and - when he does cast minorities - they're pushed to the side, often as the hired help.
In The Royal Tenenbaums, Pagoda's (Kumar Pallana) role is Royal's small, faithful manservent; his portrayal, when compared to all of the white people around him is basically that of a simple-minded individual, in order to add comedic value to the movie.
Think also about how, in the same movie, Danny Glover's Herman Sherman - Etheline's African-American boyfriend - is made to take the racial cracks when he's referred to by head-of-the-house Royal as "Coltrane" and accused of "talkin' jive". Think of how Fantastic Mr Fox took it one step further in a different direction, by taking a classic kid's tale and making it a middle-aged white guy's story of complacent self-absorption. Mortgages are hell! Wives are bitches! And cast your minds back to The Darjeeling Limited, in which three wealthy white brothers explore India in the most imperialist way possible and we learn nothing about the human condition other than the fact that trendy men can get Louis Vuitton to sponsor their suitcases.
Perhaps Wes Anderson is unequipped to say anything outside of his own filmmaking experience, but the real issue is that any sense of class or race disparity never amounts to conflict, discussion, or commentary. In fact, in his book Wes Anderson: Why His Movies Matter, Mark Browning puts it like this:
It is not perhaps that Anderson's films condone overt racism but that in a series of films, nonwhite roles are often subordinate and for sexual/comic relief only.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, which will surely see the auteur dazzle again when it hits theaters this weekend, does feature Anderson's first non-white protagonist - though he plays a hotel concierge... I'm withholding judgement on this portrayal.
Sure, Anderson is allowed to make as many well-crafted, whimsically entertaining movies he wants to make. But, perhaps it's about time this filmmaker routinely casts a racially diverse cast when the characters roles are not necessarily particular to their race. As easy as it is to bitch about Anderson's Anderson-y elements, there are real criticisms to highlight in his work. Let's focus on those of real importance.