What's Wrong With Wes Anderson? 

A decade after Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, Generation Y's anointed auteur tries for a comeback with Fantastic Mr. Fox

Friday, Nov 20 2009

If we were back in Wes Anderson’s native Texas, the plate of food he’s showing little mercy might be called the Morning Roundup or the Wildcatter’s Special. Unfortunately for my wallet, we’re in a booth at Kate Mantilini on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills and here it’s called Barry’s Breakfast and costs about four times more than it has any right to. Anderson spears an Italian sausage link (butterflied and grilled), bites off a chunk, holds the remains in the air for a moment and confesses, “It’s my second breakfast.” Despite that, he’s more than game when I suggest splitting a side order of pancakes. The thin man’s unexpected voraciousness reminds me of the last time I saw him.

It was a little more than 10 years ago when I accompanied Anderson on a road trip that started in Los Angeles on the morning that his breakthrough movie, Rushmore, opened here and in New York. With each mile marker on our way to Texas, the first stop in a journey that would propel him to New York and beyond, came reports from theaters on both coasts. The reports were good. Anderson’s quirky story of a love triangle between a rich industrialist played by Bill Murray, an eccentric prep-school rebel played by newcomer Jason Schwartzman, and a first-grade teacher touched a nerve with a certain audience that appreciated its postmodern updating of The Graduate by way of Harold and Maude.

As the miles passed and the momentum built, it became clear that the horizons of Anderson’s future were expanding in ways that few people experience. Just two years earlier, his first feature, Bottle Rocket, had crashed and burned so badly that his panicked writing partner and muse, Owen Wilson, suggested they put as much distance as they could between themselves and the now-beloved cult classic. “When 85 people get up and leave the theater, you kind of get the message that something’s wrong,” says Anderson, remembering a particularly bad screening. That all changed in a day: Rushmore would soon be nominated for Independent Spirit and Golden Globe awards and placed on many critics’ year-end Top 10 lists, not to mention relaunch Bill Murray’s career. Suddenly, we were driving into a landscape of endless possibilities — terrifying in some ways, or so I imagined. Anderson, though, seemed poised and welcoming. Besides, the white Ford Explorer he had apparently convinced Disney to rent for him in perpetuity was stocked with a cooler full of sandwiches, sodas and various snacking items. What could go wrong?

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It wasn’t yet noon when he asked if I wanted a sandwich from the cooler.

“In lieu of In-N-Out Burger?” I asked, worried we were going to blow past one of the few reasons to stop in Barstow. “No, not in lieu of In-N-Out Burger. Let’s stop at the next In-N-Out Burger!”

Anderson managed to talk, drive and wolf down his burger, fries and vanilla shake without missing a beat or a lane change.

Ten years can change some things. The guy driving the Ford Explorer had soft features, unstylish glasses and a schoolboy haircut. He dressed in an oxford shirt and corduroys that looked like they were bought during a back-to-school sale at Kohl’s. The guy across the booth at Kate Mantilini has a leaner body and a sharper face. The glasses are gone and the hair looks expensively trained. His oxford is crisp and monogrammed above the breast pocket in a delicate font that reads W.W.A, for Wesley Wales Anderson. His suit is a made-to-order burnt-orange corduroy number.

These clothes rest on wood hangers, not the floor. Sure, he looks a little overly art-directed, but who’s to begrudge him? He’s 40 now, in love, lives in France and is one of the singular voices in American cinema. He can dress how he pleases. But his eyes, arch then behind those nerd glasses, now seem like they’re on the lookout, giving way only occasionally to the bursts of mischief that punctuate his often dolorous movies. Of course, not everything has changed. Anderson can still talk a blue streak while simultaneously gulping coffee and mashing up Texas-size gobs of food. There’s another thing: Now as then, Wes Anderson’s future is at a critical juncture.

We meet up the day after his latest film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, kicks off AFI Fest at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. It’s not quite like a reunion of long-lost friends, but there is a certain familiarity. I ask him if he remembers leaving behind one chapter in his life and starting another during that trip a decade ago.

“I think, on that trip, without knowing it, I was moving permanently to New York, or moving to New York for the next seven years, or something like that,” he says. “So, to me, that was a big change, becoming a New Yorker.”

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