Show of hands: who considers themselves excited for Wes Anderson’s upcoming stop-motion comedy Isle of Dogs? Next show of hands: for those of you who raised their hands for the first question – yes, this is the Internet, but just pretend you did if you would have – how many of you own a jacket with elbow patches, a beret and/or an oversized wool sweater? I kid, of course.
Yes, the joke that Wes Anderson fanatics are entirely of the indie twee ilk is tired and contrived, and likewise, there are some who find Anderson’s directing and visual style to be much the same. Not even the most popular directors are exempt from divisive opinion, and you can throw Anderson’s name into the hat, as well. For instance, though some may regard The Grand Budapest Hotel as the current height of his directorial career – this writer included – others may have found its extravagance in visual appearance verging on self-parody. Even if you whole-heartedly love his work, you must know there’s a chance that at least one of his films will disappoint you, and with that in mind, let’s take a look at possibly his most polarizing film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
Wes Anderson’s tendencies behind the camera encompass the sort of directorial style that is constantly calling attention to itself. Are there linear camera movements coinciding with painstakingly precise blocking? Check. Is the color palette rich and vibrant? You bet – he loves using his blues and golden yellows here, and even reds and greens when he wants something to stand out. Is the humor a curious mixture of dry and screwball, with perhaps a tinge of melancholy for added effect? Why wouldn’t it be? Any Wes Anderson staple you can think of is present here, and he had three previous films with critical praise to back up his choices. What was the difference this time around?
Throughout Anderson’s career, fellow writer and director Noah Baumbach has been a frequent collaborator, and in a strange way, they’re a perfect match. With his particular writing style, Baumbach’s pictures exhibit a caustic and somewhat misanthropic nature that lends an overall unwelcoming feeling. Anderson’s films, though they aren’t so happy-go-lucky, suggest a playful, though meticulous giddiness in the direction that keeps the tone relatively positive. On paper, the two seemed as though they should have been a perfect counterbalance for each other.
Instead, The Life Aquatic’s greatest downfall is its being disappointingly uneven and lacking in tonal cohesion. Given the narrative that Anderson and Baumbach co-devised, there ought to have been a greater emotional heft brought to the picture by stripping back Anderson’s typical tricks of self-aware artificiality and grounding the visuals into something more naturalistic the way of Rushmore. Though there are moments when Anderson is capable of wringing out some endearing comedy that allows the audience to internalize and sympathize with the characters’ ever-present sadness and self-pity, other similar sequences are met with cold direction thanks to Anderson’s visual proclivities.
There’s only so much the actors could have done with the material, as well. Featuring many of Wes Anderson’s regulars, the performances from them are fine, but for most of the characters, Anderson and Baumbach’s dialogue is such that the actors are entrapped into consistently playing their role a certain way and offers little to differentiate between them. Again, with Anderson and Baumbach’s styles meeting in the middle, the cynicism and pessimism normally associated with Baumbach sticks out sorely against Anderson’s visual vibrancy, in spite of a few moments when that dichotomy awkwardly succeeds in a self-reflexive, if also – and I dread using this word – ironic fashion.
Is there any particular person at fault, though? Honestly, I don’t know if there is. I still believe that Anderson and Baumbach complement each other as filmmakers, but their next collaboration* needs to find a more organic balance between the two’s different tendencies. And in fact, on an individual basis, there isn’t much of anything wrong with either’s contributions to this film. If you’re a fan of Wes Anderson, you will gain a lot of fulfillment consuming his careful color selection and analyzing where each character and object is placed in the frame. If you love Baumbach, his sharply sardonic tongue is on full display in the dialogue.
On the strangest of levels, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is entertaining viewing in spite of its flaws because we keep actively rooting for the individuals involved in the production, but we still can’t let go of how deeply those flaws run. But it’s okay, because every auteur is allowed a misstep or two, and since The Life Aquatic, Anderson got back on track with Fantastic Mr. Fox and has continued to keep churning out spectacles for the eyes and heart. Because of that, I know I’m excited for Isle of Dogs. Are you?
*Side Note: I realize they co-wrote Fantastic Mr. Fox, but given the context The Life Aquatic provides, it now seems an overcorrection back to Anderson’s trademark whimsical spirit, which isn’t a bad thing.