Tag: wes anderson

Social Uniforms in Film: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)


Wes Anderson’s films offer the most consistent examples of cinematic social uniforms (the idea of a single costume or variation on one that a character wears as an everyday outfit, separate from a school- or work-related uniform), aside from those of Hal Hartley (who is a clearly a major influence on Anderson). His characters typically sport one specific outfit, or variations on one, or, at times, literal uniforms related to a job or association. They come to define the characters in some way, and allow the actors to blend into Anderson’s meticulously-crafted visual worlds. My favorite Anderson film has remained The Royal Tenenbaums, and it is rife with social uniform goodness.

The Tenenbaum family dynamic is laid out in a prologue detailing their lives 22 years prior to the main narrative, setting up the interests, personalities, and styles of mother Etheline (Angelica Huston), father Royal (Gene Hackman), oldest son Richie (Luke Wilson), adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), younger son Chas (Ben Stiller), and young neighbor Eli (Owen Wilson). Though considered a “family of geniuses” at the time, the following years are marred by failure, betrayal, drugs, death, and regret. When the long-shunned Royal decides to come back into their lives by faking cancer, he unwittingly alters the relationships of everyone associated with his family. Tellingly, each adult character is introduced in a series of tableaux looking into the camera as a mirror and primping in some way. From the beginning, each individual’s personality and position is in a sense defined by their appearance, and specifically by the look they create for themselves to present to the world. Most of them maintain the same style over the course of 22 years, and for the few who change, the switch signals a major emotional shift.




Etheline is a steady, intelligent, and loving woman who dedicates herself to her children’s education, and later to the study of anthropology. Her look is thoughtful and no-nonsense, thanks to a range of color-coordinated dress suits, tinted glasses, and pulled-back curls. Her palette is soft, with pastel blues, pinks, and tans, all perfectly matching shirts, skirts, blazers, and coats. Her appearance is assured and confident, but warm, reflecting her kind, nurturing personality combined with a professional edge. Like his ex-wife, Royal oozes confidence in his appearance, but its effect is more slimy, and more of a facade. His grey, double-breasted pinstripe suite, paired with fine silk shirts and striped ties in playful pinks and purples, allows him to maintain his delusions of grandeur as he holds on to his once-impressive status as a top lawyer and model patriarch. Along with his wool winter coat, he dons an old-man cap and cane as affectations, symbols of seniority and life experience. His ego and charisma are all he has left, and he needs his look to match. His foil is Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), Etheline’s accountant and suitor, whose standard outfit is almost comical, clearly contrasting with Royal’s elegant attire. His bright blue suit, checkered shirts, and jaunty bow ties present an unintimidating, un-self-conscious man. To Royal, Henry is barely worth worrying about, but for Etheline, he is the kind of respectful, unassuming, good-natured man she could suddenly find herself falling for. He is in many ways Royal’s opposite, but shows himself his equal, and though his clothing is a little bit on the silly side, that bright blue of his suit clearly represents a bolder man than we at first realize, one who tries to do the right thing while fighting for the woman he loves and the family he’s ready to join.



Richie and Margot Tenenbaum do not change their look from childhood into adulthood. As a child, Richie is an amateur painter and talented tennis player, going pro as a teen but retiring early after suffering a nervous breakdown on the court. In the years that follow, he continues to present himself (and be viewed by others) primarily as an athlete, maintaining his Bjorn Borg-esque look right down to the long hair. He is most often shown in his striped polo tennis shirt, customized “Baumer” wristbands, striped sweatband, and aviator sunglasses, with a tan-colored suit jacket and slacks that somehow normalize the fact that he’s always wearing athletic accessories. Richie is the most well-adjusted of the Tenenbaum children, the most accepting of his father’s efforts to reconnect, and generally the most collected in his temperament. His lifelong love of his adopted sister Margot haunts him, but he rarely allows that to show, and so his appearance is, like Royal’s, a facade of stability. His outfit connects him to his past success as a well-known tennis player–even causing strangers to recognize him and request a photo or signature–but it also marks him as a man in stasis, literally wearing his arrested development on his sleeve. He has not changed his appearance because he cannot move on from Margot, or (to a lesser but still notable degree) from his failure in his career. He may physically travel around the world but he himself remains emotionally stuck. When he finally decides to make a change–not so much in clothing choice but in shaving his hair and beard–it is right before he attempts suicide, reflecting how closely connected his outward appearance is linked to his internal conflict.

The sullen and mysterious Margot is a promising playwright as a child, but has not written for several years, living a reserved life with her doting anthropologist husband, Raleigh (Bill Murray). The narrator notes that she “is known for her extreme secrecy,”  and her attire reflects that quality. She is typically depicted in a large, knee-length fur coat and brown loafers, with a barrette in her hair and dark, smoky eyeliner. Underneath her coat she wears an assortment of striped, form-fitting polo dresses. Like Richie, she too is stunted, though she doesn’t know how or why (she acknowledges only that she is “in a rut”), and her clothing reflects her apparent entrapment between childhood and adulthood. She dresses exactly as she did as a young girl right down to the childish barrette, but has lost the triumphs and confidence of that time. She attempts to make up for her own feeling of failure and creative stagnation by cultivating a mystique, wrapping herself figuratively in enigmas and secrets of her own making, and literally in an oversize fur coat. She clings to her status as an outsider (her father’s frequent references to her adoption reinforcing her “otherness”), intentionally setting herself apart and shielding herself from more open emotion or deeper connections. Her unconventional but hip outfit conveys an eccentric, controlled, closed-off person, which is exactly what she wants.



The two characters whose looks wildly change from their childhood selves are Chas and Eli, though their reasons differ. Chas is mourning the loss of his wife, grown paranoid for the safety of his two young sons and seeking solace in the house where he grew up. Throughout the film he primarily wears a bright red Adidas tracksuit with white stripes, with matching sets for his children (who also share his messy dark hair). The effect is primarily comical to viewers, this goofy-looking family that matches from head to toe, and it’s easy at times to forget the incredible pain they are all in. Chas has been a brilliant businessman his entire life, hard-working and capable, and yet we rarely see him in that capacity. Instead he is anxious, unsure, and irritable; one might deduce that his chosen outfit–simple, comfortable, generic–is such because he is unable to handle his usual day-to-day routine, his suits and ties and conference calls. He puts on clothes that suggest exercise and health, in a color that denotes confidence, because his own fear of death and especially the loss of his children is suddenly too much to bear. Like Margot, he shrouds himself through his clothing, and like her he seems to find difficulty in accepting gestures of love or care from others, instead closing himself off. I’ve always found Chas’s arc the most affecting, and his realistic grief juxtaposed with his silly appearance speaks to Anderson’s somewhat dark sense of humor and Hartley-esque approach to pathos.

Eli Cash was a chubby, awkward boy who lived with his grandmother and spent as much time as he could at the Tenenbaum house. As a child he is always shown in his maroon school uniform, with a bland look on his face and a bad haircut. As an adult, he has made himself over completely, gaining acclaim as a novelist in the Hemingway/London vein (manly, wildernessy), and so he dons a fringed leather jacket, cowboy hat, and various western-style shirts, with a Southern accent to match. He has lived his life in the shadow of the Tenenbaum family, wishing he could be a part of their wealth and genius, and indeed even as he eclipses their fame he feels the need for their acknowledgement, calling Margot frequently and sending Etheline his article clippings. He seems to have attained all he wanted, but only by creating an over-the-top persona to slide into, a well-spoken cowboy who glams up his professorial lifestyle with sex and drugs. Of course, like most of the characters in this movie, his appearance is something of a facade. He continues to feel inadequate, falling deeper into serious addiction, though he never sheds the image he’s made for himself, maintaining it even in rehab, so it seems to have worked for him.


Wes Anderson dresses his actors the same way he dresses his sets: meticulously, nostalgically, and with personality. He uses objects to suggest personal history, and clothing to evoke certain character traits. Actors are made up so that they fit snugly into his perfectly orchestrated worlds, visually suited to their vintage ephemera and monogrammed everything. There is a kind of stationary-ness to his settings, a sturdy there-ness that puts them squarely in his familiar aesthetic (and outside of the real world, where things are messy and always rearranging). The rooms are dressed so carefully it seems unlikely anything will change, and his characters are often the same. Their clothes are an extension of themselves, and their selves are generally fixed in place. Anderson’s world is comforting in its consistency, its reliability, and he gives the same quality to his characters, who maintain specific, intentional appearances that ensure their place within that world. And ultimately, I think the appearances of the Tenenbaums really do say it all.

Movie Review: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Seen: On Criterion blu-ray on our projector set-up, from our collection.

A dysfunctional trio of former child geniuses returns to their childhood home for the first time in over a decade. Successful businessman Chas (Ben Stiller), still grieving over the loss of his wife in a plane crash, believes his own house is not safe for him and his two sons. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), a playwright who hasn’t written anything new in years, is unhappy in her marriage to neurologist Raleigh St Clair (Bill Murray) and needs a change. Richie (Luke Wilson), a former pro tennis player now sailing around the world after suffering a breakdown during a high-profile match, returns to hopefully resolve his romantic feelings for Margot, who is adopted so it’s totally not illegal (but maybe frowned upon). While their archaeologist mother, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), is being romanced by her adorable accountant (Danny Glover), their scoundrel of a father, Royal (Gene Hackman)- who has not been invited to family events in years- pays a visit claiming he’s dying of stomach cancer.

Oh goodness, this movie gives me feelings. Artfully fusing kooky, understated humor with heart-wrenching pathos, The Royal Tenenbaums is, for me, the perfect balance of Wes Anderson’s by-now all-too-familiar filmmaking traits. It’s funny and “quirky” without moving too far into caricature, and the characters are incredibly strong. Each actor is able to convey a lot about their person without too much dialogue or showy moments, aided gracefully by an unseen Alec Baldwin as the narrator and a group of really talented child actors for flashback scenes. I really just feel for these characters, all of them (and there are many!), as everyone is just sort of dealing with their own personal tragedy in a wry, self-aware way. While on paper Richie’s Elliot Smith scene is the most affecting, I actually am always moved to tears by one simple exchange towards the end of the film. After Eli (Owen Wilson) crashes his car into the house and kills the dog, and Chas freaks out about his kids and beats up Eli, and in the aftermath he’s just standing there, and he turns to Royal and says, with a slight break in his voice, “I’ve had a rough year, dad.” Royal responds sympathetically, “I know you have, Chassie.” And that’s it, Chas walks back into the house. It’s this completely heart-breaking moment for me, I’m honestly tearing up right now just thinking about it.

Ok sucking it up now. Of course The Royal Tenenbaums is also pretty funny, and has a million little funny jokes and goofy characters and subplots. Raleigh’s unusual patient/research subject Dudley could have his own movie. I love all the fake books created for different characters, especially Eli’s Old Custer (“Well everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t?”). Visually, the aesthetic is perfect. Anderson’s penchant for obsessive details and antique charm is well-suited to the film’s pseudo-New York setting, and I get a little hot and bothered by all the prim, well-organized tableaux. I mean, Chas arranges his suitcases by size. It’s really nice. And the scene transitions featuring chapters from an imagined book of the story are a sweet touch. This film also features self-assigned character costumes, which I always really love. Margot’s collared dress and fur coat, Chas’s red track suit (with matching ones for his sons), Richie’s headband, polo, and tan blazer- these outfits create shields around their wearers as well as a certain kind of comical repetition. It’s one of my favorite Movie things, in general.

I guess I just love everything about this movie. I listen to the soundtrack pretty often, I think it’s tied with The Life Aquatic for favorite Wes Anderson soundtrack. I quote certain lines from it regularly (“I KNOW YOU ASSHOLE!”), and I never really tire of talking about it. It’s the Wes Anderson film I stack all the rest against, and he has yet to top it.

AND YES I know this is just a rich white people problems kind of movie but goddammit if it doesn’t just GET to me every time. The TEARS, man. UGH.


Pair This Movie With: It’s taken me wayyy too long to pick up on this but I finally realized that the Tenenbaums are basically an updated version of JD Salinger’s Glass family so I think it’d be nice to read Nine Stories or Franny & Zooey before watching this movie. Or you should just read them in general, if it’s your kind of thing.

Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Theatre in Cambridge.

Oh yeah, so Wes Anderson has a new movie, isn’t that always nice? Moonrise Kingdom places him in familiar territory, managing a host of white people with family issues in quaint settings while awesome music plays in the background. This time around the story details the events surrounding the escape of young Sam (Jared Gillman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) from their oppressive living situations and the subsequent search for them by various adults and kids in the area of their small New England island. Sam, an orphan who is bullied by his peers and unwelcome with his foster family, quits the wilderness scout program after recognizing that he doesn’t fit in. Suzy is volatile and feels misunderstood by her family, and hopes to find acceptance alone with pen-pal Sam. Her emotionally-distant parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) team up with local cop Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) to find the missing tweens. Oh and also it’s 1965, and there’s a big storm coming to the island.

Yes, Wes Anderson has made another Wes Anderson movie, and no it’s not as good as The Royal Tenenbaums, but Moonrise Kingdom is a lot of fun and impeccably put together. The varied soundtrack includes an instrumental score by Alexandre Desplat, ramblin’ tunes from Hank Williams, chic ballads from chanteuse Françoise Hardy, and of course a little Mark Mothersbaugh. There is an intricate level of detail in the sets, costumes, props, and framing, making for a visually complex experience that will certainly deepen on subsequent viewings. Anderson perfectly captures the rustic New England aesthetic, with dark woods and quiet beaches set against cloudy skies. And unsurprisingly, his style is absolutely suited to the 1960’s, it’s a wonder he hasn’t set a film during that decade before. His penchant for outdated electronics, weathered books, and colorful costumes is finally applicable!

Here’s the thing about Moonrise Kingdom: I love all the adults in it and their storylines, but I don’t especially care for the kids. And this movie is largely about these kids. Now it’s no secret that I’m not a fan of children in general, and in fact I tend to be uncomfortable around anyone younger than 20 unless they’re related to me, so this may be a personal thing. But Sam is kind of annoying, and looks almost exactly like a creepy dude who lived down the hall from me freshman year of college. Suzy is ok, but a lot of her character felt like a retread of Margot Tenenbaum, only tinier. I liked her enough in the beginning, mostly because she reads the same type of books I did at her age, but she sort of fades into the background in the later scenes when it becomes more about Sam. Also I know some people are weirded out by the 12-year-olds-in-underwear thing but they don’t do anything actually inappropriate, and let’s not pretend like sexual awakening/exploration doesn’t start around that age anyway.

For the most part this is a really enjoyable, and funny film. Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis, and Frances McDormand are excellent additions to the Anderson roster, and I especially enjoyed Norton as the down-and-out Scout Master, who blames himself for Sam’s disappearance and just wants to set things right. Bob Balaban was pretty adorable too. I liked it a lot, but it didn’t resonate me in the same way that The Royal Tenenbaums does, and I can’t help but compare the two. This feels lighter and a little more formulaic, but I think a rewatch is needed before I form a final opinion. I’m sure there are a lot of little details and references I missed.


Pair This Movie With: Perhaps Where the Wild Things Are for another, more fanciful tale of a child escaping his home life. Or honestly after this I just wanted to watch more Edward Norton movies, maybe Death to Smoochy.

Movie Review: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Seen: On dvd on my Seattle friends’ projector set-up, from their collection.

I’ll always remember The Life Aquatic as the first independent movie I actively sought out in a theater. I went with my friend AJ, and we were the youngest people there by a few decades, and we guffawed like crazy while those around us didn’t laugh much, and we felt like we were both in on some secret, awesome joke, and it was all so grown-up. Then this movie’s soundtrack got me into David Bowie, so all in all a pretty important film for my formative teen years. The plot concerns the trials and tribulations of Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), a once-respected marine scientist, explorer, and filmmaker who embarks on a quest to kill the mysterious tiger shark that killed his best friend. He assembles a motley crew for the voyage, including his newfound possible son, Ned (Owen Wilson), his possessive first mate Klaus (Willem Dafoe), a pregnant reporter (Cate Blanchett), a company stooge (Bud Cort) to keep an eye on spending, and a hoard of unpaid interns. Various mishaps and tragedies befall them, but Steve is committed to avenging his friend.

This is of course another example of Wes Anderson making a Wesandersony movie, which I don’t think is a bad thing since I like his movies. There is an insane attention to detail, a wealth of personality affectations, delightful miniatures, lovely imagery, and a groovy soundtrack (embellished with Portuguese Bowie covers by Seu Jorge). He adds a dash of surrealism with fantastic stop-motion sea creatures from Henry Selick, and some unexpected action sequences involving pirates. Like pretty much all of his films, the narrative is scattered and somewhat episodic, relying more on character and atmosphere to propel itself forward. The script is funny and a little weird, and the cast is of course phenomenal.

You really can’t go wrong with a sad Bill Murray, who fully embodies the title character. He’s the right amount of self-deprecating humor and asshole narcissism, tinged with traces of former glory and a life riddled with regrets. Steve Zissou is a dick, no question, and often hard to sympathize with, but he maintains a charismatic hold on those around him and the audience can’t help but go along with it, especially when flashes of an underlying heroism reveal themselves. It’s too bad he continually makes homophobic and misogynist comments, though. It’d be nice if that didn’t have to happen.

I’ve long held The Life Aquatic as one of my favorite Wes Anderson movies, but it had been many years since I’d seen it. I still think it’s great, but not as great as I remembered. I feel like I can better see through Anderson’s veneer of hipness, and while his deftness with character and emotional depth remains strong, there are narrative and pacing flaws that seem more apparent. Of course, it’s still a hilarious, sad, exciting, and beautiful film. I would expect no less.


Pair This Movie With: My boyfriend suggests The Limits of Control because “It’s got a quest, and Bill Murray!” which I think is reason enough!

Movie Review: Bottle Rocket (1996)

It’s summer time, so that must mean it’s time for Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson’s first full-length movie, featuring the first onscreen performances from Luke and Owen Wilson. It’s a cautionary tale about laid-back, regular-guy Anthony (Luke), recently released from a voluntary mental health clinic, and his tepid entry into organized heists with his long-time friend Dignan (Owen), an extremely enthusiastic planner.

The two enlist their whiny rich friend Bob (Robert Musgrave) to act as getaway driver as they rob a local book store, all in an attempt to impress Dignan’s former employer Mr Henry (James Caan) so that he’ll include them in his criminal team. The three escape to an isolated motel to lay low for a few days after their robbery, but their long-term plans are side-tracked when Anthony falls in love with Spanish-speaking housekeeper Inez (Lumi Cavazos) and Bob runs home to bust his brother Future Man (Andrew “The Third Wilson” Wilson) out of jail.

This movie is pretty adorable, and a really impressive first effort from Wes Anderson. The script (co-written with Owen Wilson) is goofy and irreverent, though the pacing is a little off-kilter. It slows down and speeds up at odd moments, so that sometimes it drags and other times it’s moving too quickly. The humor is often strange and unexpected, with jokes that I laugh at but later wonder why I found them so funny. This is common for many Anderson films, which usually sport an inherent charm and wit that isn’t always easily explained.

Both Wilsons turn in excellent performances. Luke is cute and unassuming as the quiet, straightforward Anthony, and most of his best scenes involve him yapping away un-self-consciously to Inez, who understands little English. Owen is loud and eager as Dignan, emphasizing every line to its full comedic potential and imbuing the film with a lot of its sense of fun. I also quite enjoy Lumi Cavazos’ surprisingly expressive turn as Inez, and James Caan as the karate-loving, slightly sleezy Mr Henry. His motley crew of criminals/landscapers are an enjoyable bunch- including (gasp!) two non-white people (in a Wes Anderson movie? I know!)- and I wish they’d had more screen time.

While I really enjoy Bottle Rocket, it’s never been my favorite Wes Anderson movie. It’s funny and has some great performances, but for me it’s lacking the heart of some of his later films, and its characters aren’t as fully-realized.


Over and Done With“- The Proclaimers (make sure you do a Scottish accent when singing along)

Further Reading:
Bottle Rocket short film (the basis for the movie)