Once upon a time, a young filmmaker from Houston, Texas, put together a yellow submarine of sorts—an enclosed cinematic world with a style and affect that was entirely his own, peopled with his friends and screen heroes. USS Wes Anderson delivered a couple of films that were small-scale but brilliant in a modest, eccentric way. They had what fiction writers call "voice"—a coherent and distinct cinematic language and sensibility. Anderson seemed poised to become the next major American director. Certainly, the eyes and hopes of a generation of sneaker-wearing, thrift-shop dandies, young men and women who cultivate affectlessness but have sentimental hearts, were fixed fast upon Anderson and his merry band.
True, USS Anderson had some nagging tics, and each film seemed more enclosed in the storybook boundaries of Anderson's fantasy world than the one before. After being rescued by Gene Hackman's performance in The Royal Tenenbaums, USS Anderson finally ran aground last winter, with The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Rather than develop as a storyteller, Anderson appeared to have floated off to an adolescent never-never land where everyone wears Lacoste, colorful and quirky toys abound, and a vintage emo soundtrack gets piped in whenever a little poignancy is required—a Michael Jackson ranch for the Salinger set.
The disappointment was widespread, yet the critics at the major papers and the hipster blogs all overlooked one important fact: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou was the first Wes Anderson film in which Owen Wilson didn't share the writing chores. What if Owen Wilson, America's resident goofy roué with the broken nose and the lazy nasal drawl, was the rudder keeping USS Anderson on course, steering its captain away from solipsism and ironic overload?
Owen Wilson has always been taken lightly. The shaggy blond hair, the slightly dazed stare, and his careless, surfer-dude mien make him easy to underestimate, both in terms of acting talent and brains. Yet, there's something wolfish about Wilson, a sharp-edged intelligence gleaming underneath the chilled-out Texas veneer. For a recent example of Wilson's verbal counterpunching, see the letter he wrote to The New Yorker in response to a takedown of Ben Stiller.
It's not surprising that so little is known about him as a writer. Even while the Anderson/Wilson writing partnership was extant, it was mysterious. Barry Mendel, a producer of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, told a reporter, "Frankly, I have never seen them working together." Luke Wilson, who lived with his brother and Anderson in Los Angeles, and who appeared in all three Anderson-Wilson films, once said, "They're like one of those couples that you wonder, 'Are they really together?' It was kind of a closed-door affair sometimes. I get the feeling they both toss out names, ideas, fragments. But I couldn't tell you. And if I can't, I think probably nobody can."
But there are clues. The Criterion Collection DVDs of Rushmore, Tenenbaums, and the recently released The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou contain revealing audio commentaries, especially Rushmore's. Both Anderson and Wilson—neither of whom went to film school—come off as formidably conversant in cinema, Blockbuster autodidacts for whom a camera angle or line of script conjures up a stream of movie references. And both men are appealingly generous but unshowy with their knowledge, demonstrating copious wit and insight and sensitivity. Of course, we've long been told all this about Anderson, but it comes as a surprise how much it's equally the case for Wilson.
Ben Stiller once described Owen Wilson as having "a library in his head," and hearing his Rushmore commentary bears that out. He calls Max Fisher a "James Gatz" figure, which is the kind of Great Gatsby reference dropped by people who have actually spent time with the book. But for the most part, Wilson's references are cinematic, not literary. Unlike Anderson, whose film vocabulary is impressive but top-heavy with auteurs—Jean Renoir, Truffaut, Michael Powell—Owen Wilson draws on the rich mine of the American middlebrow. When Max, facing expulsion from Rushmore Academy, asks his headmaster: "Can you get me off the hook? You know, for old times sake?" Wilson points out that it's a Godfather reference. When Max, alone in a classroom with his love object, the beautiful young teacher Ms. Cross, gets up, mid-conversation, to stick a pencil into an electric sharpener, Wilson recalls a moment in Terms of Endearment when Jack Nicholson, driving in a convertible across the beach, runs his fingers through Shirley MacLaine's hair and shouts, (according to Wilson): "Wind is in the hair, lead is in the pencil!"
But the most telling moment in the Rushmore commentary comes later, during a long, panning group montage shot—a Wes Anderson trademark—that segues into a scene of an angry and frustrated Max finally confronting a just as angry and frustrated Ms. Cross, who finally tells Max off:
Ms. Cross: "Do you think we're going to have sex?"
Max: "That's kinda a cheap way to put it."
Ms. Cross: "Not if you ever f----d before, it isn't."
The first voice, commenting on the group montage, belongs to Anderson:
"There's a storybook feeling, something about trying to create these insular worlds in these movies. I don't know exactly why we're doing this, but …"
Then, cut to the classroom scene, where we hear Owen Wilson in the background. "In Bottle Rocket and Rushmore there's an innocence to the characters," Wilson says. "This scene feels very real in a movie that in a lot of places seems sort of dreamy. This scene has a cringe factor to it because the movie has an innocent feel and this sort of breaks through that. It makes you uncomfortable, which is appropriate because it has to puncture Max's make-believe world."
Telling lines, and, one can't help suspect, somehow indicative of the larger system of checks and balances in the Anderson/Wilson partnership.
Wes Anderson's new screenwriting partner is Noah Baumbach, the youngish filmmaker behind the slight but sharp indie films Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy. Life Aquatic, the first film he co-wrote with Anderson, doesn't bode well for their creative duet, and the two are working on another script, for a movie based on the Roald Dahl children's book The Fantastic Mr. Fox. In a clubby touch, Baumbach and Anderson conduct the DVD commentary for Life Aquatic over dinner at Bar Pitti, a hip restaurant in Greenwich Village. Baumbach's first movie reference is to Fellini's 8 1/2—part of the canon, of course, but not as much of a gut-punch as Terms of Endearment.
One of the good things about old friends is they never tend to be that impressed with you, because they knew you way back when. Judging from the DVD commentary, Baumbach seems a little in awe of Anderson, his superstar director pal, or at least more inclined to second Anderson's vision than to challenge it, as Wilson had seemed to. You're left thinking that the Anderson-Baumbach partnership is not letting much new air into Wes Anderson's world.
Wilson, for his part, seems to be the one who dropped out of the writing partnership with Anderson. Wilson's acting career took off, and time became scarce. He told a reporter a couple of years ago that he preferred acting to writing because it was more social and spontaneous—you could always improvise lines in the moment; whereas to him, writing a script felt like holing away on a term paper. Fair enough. (Most writers, when confronted with the same choice, would follow Wilson's lead in a finger snap, if only they could.) And Wilson's improv approach to comic filmmaking—an approach shared by his coterie of pals (Stiller, Ferrell, Vaughn, et al.)—has yielded some gems. The best line in Wedding Crashers, hands down—"Scientists say we only use 10 percent of our brains, but I think we only use 10 percent of our hearts"—was reportedly a Wilson original.
And the Wilson-Anderson writing collaboration didn't always sound easy. Wes Anderson once described the producer James L. Brooks' role during the writing and revising of the Bottle Rocket script as partly "refereeing our head-butting matches, Owen's and mine." Brooks put it this way, "Wes is very opinionated and very stubborn. And Owen, who does not think the same way as Wes, is also stubborn." Just as you can't blame Lennon and McCartney for going their own ways, neither can you begrudge Wilson and Anderson. But for those for whom watching USS Anderson's first three movies was like, for another generation, hearing Sgt. Pepper's for the first time, Owen Wilson's shore leave can only dishearten.