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Wardrobe as Uniforms
In Wes Anderson's world, what people wear speaks volumes about their internal life — so much so that they rarely change their clothes. (And when they do, it's a clear sign of a radical interior change.) Anderson's most cosplay-ready film remains The Royal Tenenbaums, with each character modeling a vaguely fantastical uniform of ennui.
In Anderson's more recent work, this ''uniform'' concept is literalized but also flipped: The filmmaking squad in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and the Khaki Scouts of Moonrise Kingdom demonstrate their solidarity with matching outfits, while the post-Victorian Ruritania of The Grand Budapest Hotel imagines a modernizing world overflowing with uniforms that express old-fashioned values (like the colorful all-star concierges) or encroaching modernism (the vaguely fascist soldiers dressed all in black.)
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To match the careful costume design, Anderson also tends to set his movies in large multi-room buildings (or vehicles) that suggest the dreamy reality of a theatrical set. His most famous creation in this regard is probably the Belafonte, Steve Zissou's boat, which contains a research library, a laboratory, a sauna (with a Swedish masseuse!), and an editing room: It could be suggestive of Zissou's fractured brain, or it could be a visual allegory for the process of making a movie, or it could just be really cool-looking.
It's a spiritual sibling to the Tenenbaum house, to the titular train in The Darjeeling Limited, and the titular Grand Budapest Hotel, which is rendered in several different time periods that microcosmically suggest the protagonist's coming of age across the transformative 20th century.
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The Wes Anderson Players
Like many of his '90s indie-auteur brethren, Anderson has a cast of regulars who pop up frequently in his movies — and Grand Budapest features practically everyone who's ever been in a Wes Anderson movie. Jason Schwartzman is Anderson's most famous onscreen surrogate, and the Wilson brothers (Luke and Owen) date back the furthest, but few actors have been more defined by their work with Anderson than Bill Murray, who kickstarted the entire second phase of his career with Rushmore and has appeared in every Anderson movie since then.
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A Story Within a Story
Anderson's films often feel like storybooks brought to life. Sometimes that's explicit. Royal Tenenbaums begins with a faceless someone checking a book out of the library called The Royal Tenenbaums. Fantastic Mr. Fox begins with another faceless someone cracking open Roald Dahl's book. Grand Budapest Hotel takes the storybook games to a new level: We see a present-day girl opening the book, which Tom Wilkinson's author narrates, until the younger author (Jude Law) meets the book's actual narrator.
Anderson's metafictional games extend to The Life Aquatic: The title card for the movie is technically the title card for a film by Steve Zissou. And Moonrise Kingdom indulges its lead character's storybook obsession with its own onscreen narrator, played by Bob Balaban, who narrates the events of the film from what sounds like a significant chronological remove, even though he briefly interacts with the characters.
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A Heist Within a Heist
Given Anderson's indie-eccentric reputation, its intriguing to note that many of his films could technically be classified as heist films, with the characters ultimately taking part in some kind of criminal caper. Heck, without knowing the career to follow, Anderson's debut film Bottle Rocket almost played like a Tarantino film in the context of mid-'90s Sundance filmmaking. It's reminiscent of the petty-theft inciting incident that kicks off Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox, which Anderson elaborated considerably in his movie version. And Life Aquatic's meandering first half leads into a full-blown attack on a pirate hideout.
Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel are arguably more equivalent to road-trip pictures, but there's something heist-y at their core. In the former, Sam Shakusky helps Suzy Bishop break out of the metaphorical prison of her New Penzance life; in the latter, Zero the lobby boy helps his mentor break out of an actual prison.
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Long Takes, Wide Angle Lenses
Anderson's defining visual style is the tableau: A group of characters arranged in very specific locations, suggesting a diorama or an historical painting. Anderson's films often feature at least one notable long tracking shot. In Royal Tenenbaums, it's the post-climactic shot of the characters on the fire truck; in Life Aquatic, it's the introduction to the Belafonte.
This visual style also explains Anderson's preference for wide-angle lenses and his frequent close-ups — sometimes on characters, sometimes on objects. In his wider shots, Anderson often makes his characters look like part of the scenery; but his close-ups capture them in shocking intimacy. The moment in Royal Tenenbaums when Anderson moves in close to the face of Richie Tenenbaum, seeing his beloved step-sister walk towards him, is one of the most moving single shots in the film. It's a typical Anderson moment: A brief sensation of the river of turbulent emotion flowing beneath his characters' stolid exterior.
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The Bloom of First Love
You could also classify much of Anderson's work as ''romance,'' and especially young romance. In Bottle Rocket, Luke Wilson sparks a romance with the Spanish-speaking maid Inez. In Moonrise Kingdom, the two leads are lonely children who run away together. Grand Budapest Hotel finds narrator-protagonist Zero in the bloom of first love with pastry chef Agatha.
Those relatively idealized visions of young love run alongside more complicated portraits of youthful romance. In Royal Tenenbaums, the unrequited love between Richie and Margot has left them both as vaguely traumatized adults. And in Rushmore, Max Fischer's idealized vision of his ''romance'' with the widowed teacher Rosemary Cross runs up against the older woman's much more realistic perspective on their relationship — and also runs counter to the more grown-up affair between Ms. Cross and Bill Murray's Herman Blume.
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The Corrosion of Old Love
Anderson may portray first love as soulful and occasionally idealized, but the filmmaker has a clear-eyed perspective of how romance complicates over time. A child of divorce, Anderson has filled his movies with variations of broken families. Mother and Father Tenenbaum have been separated for decades. The Zissous are either on the edge or far over it for most of The Life Aquatic. The childish idealism of the kids in Moonrise Kingdom co-exists with the troubled romantic triangle involving Suzy's parents and local bachelor Captain Sharp. And the cartoon antics of Fantastic Mr. Fox gain a deeper resonance thanks to the realistically difficult relationship between Mr. Fox and his wife Felicity, who quite understandably wants her husband to grow out of his wild younger days.
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Maintain Order at All Costs
The defining Anderson character type is a person struggling to maintain order in their own life. This frequently manifests itself as an all-consuming obsessiveness. In Bottle Rocket, Owen Wilson's Dignan reveals a notebook containing 5-, 10-, and 75-year plans. Rushmore's Max Fischer participates in and actively runs most of the extracurricular activities at the titular academy. (Meanwhile, the tightly wound Tenenbaum children reflect the dueling personalities of their cerebral mother and their rascal father: Order vs. Chaos as a parental strategy.)
Grand Budapest Hotel's M. Gustave is the latest and probably most extreme iteration of this personality. Ralph Fiennes' concierge runs the Grand Budapest as a benevolent guardian angel, ensuring that all of his customers are comfortable (and then some, in the case of some of his older female customers). The character aspires to a higher sense of class and order that often runs counter to the uncouth nature of the changing world around him. Max Fischer could relate.
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My Mentor, My Nemesis
Anderson's young protagonists are often inevitably paired up with older men. The two characters often reflect younger/older versions of each other?which might explain why they often come into conflict. The burgeoning friendship between Max Fischer and Herman Blume becomes complicated when they both fall in love with the same woman. The same situation persists between Steve Zissou and his maybe-son Ned in The Life Aquatic.
Another form of father-son surrogacy occurs in Moonrise Kingdom, wherein Bruce Willis's Captain Sharp forms a bond with Jared Gilman's Sam Shakusky. ''Let's face it, you're probably a much more intelligent person than I am,'' says Sharp. ''But even smart kids stick their finger in electrical sockets sometimes.'' It's one of Anderson's most resonant, gentle portrayals of the complexities of aging: A suggestion that, young and old, we're all struggling to figure things out together. The much larkier Grand Budapest builds a much more conventional mentor relationship between Zero and Gustave — but even that gets reflected through the years, as the various narrators of Grand Budapest age into old men.