Film Review and Commentary: WES ANDERSON & MOONRISE KINGDOM

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by Jason Rohrer on July 13, 2012

in Film


People who like to hate really like to hate Wes Anderson.  Even those whose taste is impeccable in most arenas often fail the Anderson test: “Too quirky,” they’ll say.  Or “Too precious.”  Or “He’s in love with his shots” or “His camera fetishizes objects.”  Since the popular conception of Wes Anderson is that his movies make no money, it’s easy to marginalize him.  Yet these same people will usually also hate cash-cow directors like the guy who makes movies about giant toy robots, whose name I am thrilled to say I actually cannot recall.  I’m sure market forces will put it into my head momentarily.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema commentary on Wes Anderson and MOONRISE KINGDOM

And it’s true that (there he is) Michael Bay movies may demonstrate a similar love affair with their own parts, though if we use dollars-per-shot as a meter of care, there is no realistic comparison.  Signature Bayisms certainly include his loving caress of objects.  The difference, though, and it’s a real one, is that Mr. Anderson obsesses over things (an obsolete gadget, a mode of dress) that mean a lot to him personally and inform his narratives, while Mr. Bay showcases products that he is paid to bring to market.  Or maybe toy robots and Chevy Camaros mean a lot to Mr. Bay.  I hope so.

But why does Wes Anderson engender so much bile?  And since his intensely personal storytelling has repeatedly failed to make its money back domestically, despite a small but excitable fan base, why does he keep getting the opportunity to write and direct movies that make few overtures to a popcorn audience?  The questions are intertwined, and bear investigation.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema commentary on Wes Anderson and MOONRISE KINGDOM

As of this writing, Mr. Anderson’s latest film, the fragile and lovely Moonrise Kingdom, has been in American theaters for seven weeks.  In the course of the first month, it managed to gross almost exactly what it cost to make.  And from the perspective of American box office receipts, that made Moonrise Kingdom the best-performing Wes Anderson movie in fifteen years.  To put this in Hollywood numbers, Kingdom‘s entire budget was about half of the $30 million allotment for the 3D cameras that filmed the third giant toy robot movie (total robot budget: $200 million plus).

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema commentary on Wes Anderson and MOONRISE KINGDOM

His previous (and most expensive) movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), lost something like $60 million when marketing costs are factored in.  The one before that, 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, in domestic release earned back $11 million of its $17 million production budget.  The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou grossed less than half its $50 million cost in 2004.  This, while Mr. Bay’s last three movies have a cumulative gross of over a billion and a half dollars.  Why then do American distributors keep paying to attach their names to Wes Anderson movies?  Instead, why don’t they just pay someone to forestall their own tendency to throw money in his direction, by for instance killing him, or merely saying “You told me to say no” when the subject comes up in meetings?

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema commentary on Wes Anderson and MOONRISE KINGDOM

One reason may be that the one before Life Aquatic, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), sold $30 million more in American tickets than it cost to make, and another $20 million in foreign markets.  Movies often, and depending on accounting one might say usually, lose money, so studios have a reasonably good memory for people who once helped them break even.  (My use of “reasonably good” will be debated by producers who can’t get Studio X to return their phone calls.)  The Anderson short Hotel Chevalier made a passel on iTunes in 2007 for featuring a demurely naked Natalie Portman.  And Darjeeling grossed twice its budget when you factor in overseas receipts: it seems studios sometimes make money with this weirdo.  So there’s that.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema commentary on Wes Anderson and MOONRISE KINGDOMI think that a bigger reason Mr. Anderson keeps getting the chance to make movies is contained in a concept alien to this industry – loyalty, specifically that among Mr. Anderson and his actors.  Wes Anderson was fortunate enough early in his career to incur the admiration of a box-office gorilla.  Bill Murray will be forever celebrated by Directors Guild zookeepers for writing a check to cover a single expensive shot in Rushmore (1998) for which Touchstone Pictures, mid-production, refused to pay.  Of course, Mr. Murray could bankroll a couple of Wes Anderson movies, entire, from one pocket of his plus-fours and still have change left over to buy a round of single malts for the St Andrews clubhouse; but that fact, and whether the scene got shot (it didn’t) or the check cashed (nope), hardly matter.  One artist saw in another something worth supporting, and supported it.

People noticed, and so the phenomenon recurred.  Big stars like Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston and Danny Glover and Ben Stiller said yes to Mr. Anderson’s next project, because the last had been really good, and despite the fact that it had made no money, and even in spite of the less usual fact that in order to be in the next one they, like Mr. Murray before them, had to accept massive cuts from their normal salaries.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema commentary on Wes Anderson and MOONRISE KINGDOMPerhaps they also were inspired by Mr. Murray’s agreeing to take a smaller role in Tenenbaums, an action widely interpreted as a sign of appreciation for his own serious-actor career reinvention following Rushmore.  Maybe, too, they were moved by Mr. Anderson’s ongoing collaboration with his college buddies the Wilson brothers, Owen (co-writer of his first three movies, actor in six) and Luke (co-star of the first three).  Then there’s the director’s dogged adherence to Jason Schwartzman (actor in five) and Mr. Murray (now tied with Owen Wilson for the record).  How strange must such an epic synchronized swim seem in the shark soup of the film industry!  It must touch the hearts of a jaded town constantly seeking redemption, or at least stories that feature it.  So there’s that, too.

The list of actors who normally get millions of dollars to act, who have acted comparatively for free in a Wes Anderson movie, now includes Oscar winners like Meryl Streep, wisecracking 80’s action heroes like Mr. Willis, and everyone in between.  For beyond all this talk of faith and charity is the longing of real actors for a real part.  Mr. Anderson and his writing partners Mr. Wilson, Noah Baumbach, and Roman Coppola consistently turn out film-as-literature screenplays that start fights between stars and their agents over just how little an A-lister can accept before Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema commentary on Wes Anderson and MOONRISE KINGDOMshe sets a dangerously low salary precedent.  And when the biggest star in the world wants to do voiceover work in a stop-motion movie based on an English kids’ book nobody in Iowa ever heard of, a studio says yes to Mr. Fox at least partly so as not to piss off George Clooney.  So there’s that as well.

But just how big a financial risk does a studio take in distributing a Wes Anderson movie?  Okay, remember that it took a month to make back Moonrise Kingdom‘s $16 million dollar budget – a month during which Pixar’s Brave made $66 million in a single weekend.  But Brave opened on 4700 screens and stayed there.  In its first month, Kingdom played on, at most, 178 screens (the week of June 15), and 96 the week of June 8, and 16 little screens the week before that, and four,  four fucking screens, opening weekend.  It is salient to note that it made an average of over $170,000 per screen that first weekend, versus $16,000 per Brave screen when it made all that money during its own opening: a discrepancy which suggests the possibility that, other factors aside, had the Wes Anderson movie opened on 4700 screens, it might not have taken a whole month to make its money back.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema commentary on Wes Anderson and MOONRISE KINGDOM

So the answer is that when releasing a tiny little Wes Anderson movie, distributors don’t take much of a financial risk at all.  Focus Features, which is in the exclusive business of marketing tiny movies, hedged its Wes Anderson bet for so long that it risked wasting all of Kingdom‘s momentum and now finally, seven weeks in, the movie has plateaued around four and a half million bucks a week, now that it’s been expanded to a whopping 880 American screens. It has now sold tickets equaling almost twice its budget domestically and another twelve million overseas.  Because, apparently, people who say they want to see it aren’t kidding.

Why do they want to see it, though?  And that polar-opposite question, yet unanswered: why’s it so popular to hate Wes Anderson?  Good news if you’re almost tired of reading this: it’s the same answer.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema commentary on Wes Anderson and MOONRISE KINGDOM

Because Moonrise Kingdom was influenced in style and tone by many of its target audience’s formative films (that target audience consisting of finicky fortyish artsy intellectual cinefiles essentially like the director himself), while watching this movie one may experience a communion with the artist singular in the multiplex era.  Unlike almost any other filmmaker working today, Mr. Anderson gives viewers the opportunity to experience his transparent fetishism for no apparent purpose but service to the art.  There’s no short money in it, financial or philosophical or otherwise.  His “in-club,” to sum up the industry’s opinion (if we may judge by how it distributes his work), is too exclusive to count for much.  Bizarrely, he seems to make these aesthetic decisions for no reason but that he thinks they will make his movies better.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema commentary on Wes Anderson and MOONRISE KINGDOM

He has chosen, for instance, to present Moonrise Kingdom in washed-out pastels, a look that immediately reminds initiates of the faded foreign-film prints of 1960s and 70s movies available in American art houses twenty years later.  That he shot this film in Super16 mm format and had it blown up to a grainy-looking 35 mm – a trick he hasn’t previously played in his professional career – contributes to a mimicry of the visceral, constructed-from-primary-elements impact movies like Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows and Small Change had for him when he was growing up.  The aesthetic choice seems to be that this odd look works for this type of movie.  Like those coming-of-age stories, this one deals with personalities emerging from childhood to become warped and blasted by contact with an adult world.  One would think Mr. Anderson himself would by now have become permanently deformed by his treatment at the hands of an at best indifferent, at worst actively hostile larger public.  But his movies contain no evidence that he has even noticed any world but his own.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema commentary on Wes Anderson and MOONRISE KINGDOMTherefore, people conditioned to appreciate a broad-appeal Disney formula may take Wes Anderson’s work as a standoffish “Fuck you” directed right to their faces.  Which, I think, has much to do with why he and his movies are so despised.  It’s easy for uncritical souls to appreciate Michael Bay.  He gives them ass-kicking.  That it’s largely unmotivated ass-kicking is a problem lost on folks whose critical thinking faculties have been degraded by decades of sleek mass-market entertainments purposely emulated (maybe apotheosized) by Michael Bay movies.

They don’t call Bay pictures “slick” for nothing: they slide right down the throat and right out of the mind and make room for more.  Idiosyncratic fables like Moonrise Kingdom can seem ickily intimate by comparison, not to mention that their exploration of the human condition unrelieved by explosions can remind one of being made to pay attention in 10th grade English; and to a surprising extent, even those who identify as connoisseurs don’t like to be reminded to pay attention.  It makes them feel like the school grind caught that one time he talked in class: like not the special one anymore.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema commentary on Wes Anderson and MOONRISE KINGDOM

I’ve noticed that people who really like Michael Mann movies, for instance, tend to hate Wes Anderson and Michael Bay equally.  But Michael Mann is just Michael Bay plus pretension; read a Michael Mann film as literature and you’ve got a Little Golden Book, which is a book, yes, but not one for grown-ups.  A Wes Anderson movie is more like a J.D. Salinger story, packed with allusion and metaphor and motif – ugh.  American leisure culture, after all, is about nothing if not ease of consumption.

So there’s that… except for the fact that Moonrise Kingdom keeps making money.  Which must be difficult to understand if you hate Wes Anderson.

Moonrise Kingdom stills courtesy of Focus Features

Moonrise Kingdom
Focus Features Films
USA | rated PG-13 | 94 minutes
(finally) playing nationwide
for more info, visit Moonrise Kingdom

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

James July 14, 2012 at 9:59 pm

Great analysis. Great movie, too.


Ross July 15, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Thank you, once again, Mr. Rohrer.


David Eccles July 16, 2012 at 9:56 am

Hell yes!


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