Slate writer fields a question that must have been brewing in people's minds ever since The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou turned out to be something from the Saturday Fun Machine: Was Owen Wilson the key to the Wes Anderson phenomenon?
I liked Anderson's movies, especially The Royal Tenenbaums. Anderson has what can be approximated as "voice" in literary fiction: All his movies have a distinct feel to them, "a coherent and distinct cinematic language and sensibility." Granted that this "cinematic language" translates to auteurs--Goddard, Truffaut, Renoir--everything with subtitles, everyone is a Promil Kid, and most notably, everyone gets to wear Lacoste and/or shiny new Adidas tracksuits. This precociousness--a kind of man-boy who refuses to grow up, a Smurf Boy who affects affectlessness but is actually sentimental--is what characterizes his movies. Together with the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and bright eyed musician Conor Oberst, Wes Anderson has championed the new male infantilism in America and they probably have the mean age of eleven and a half.
In the last five or six years, Anderson has been successful with movies with this too-fragile-to-live attitude. But those movies, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and Tenenbaums, have been co-written with Owen Wilson, that butterscotch haired and broken nosed guy who then occasionally starred in movies featuring Ben Stiller. If Anderson's references are always subtitled, Wilson knew and didn't bother to hide his middlebrow sensibilities.
This is more evident in the Criterion Collection DVD commentaries for Rushmore, wherein the film makers explain a group montage shot. Anderson offers that "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 …" He cannot put his finger to it, and then lets it float, shrugs his shoulders, "Wala lang." 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."
That sort of commentary isn't something people expect from Owen Wilson, who trades kicks and laughs with Jackie Chan or Vince Vaughn. The most silliest man who is also willing to get into the brawl as opposed to the bubble boy, multi-allergic affects of Mr. Anderson. But when his movie career took off, Wilson had less time to spend screenwriting. The Life Aquatic actually found Anderson with a new writing partner, Noah Baumbach. The result can best be described as "cinematic autism"--no offense to those actually afflicted by the condition--or in Filipino, "may sariling mundo."
Although nobody really knows just how much of the penning responsibilities belongs to Wilson or Anderson, it may be safe to assume that it was Owen Wilson who balanced the equation, who pulled Anderson back from the allure of Neverland. In the recent Wedding Crashers, there's one line there that was said to be 100% Wilson: "Scientists say we only use 10 percent of our brains, but I think we only use 10 percent of our hearts." You don't need subtitles for that.