Where the Andersons diverge
Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson have had strikingly similar career arcs for their first four films. Their first films (Hard Eight and Bottle Rocket) were little-seen, but anyone who did catch them knew to expect great things from their directors. Their second films (Boogie Nights and Rushmore) were more stylish and ambitious than their debuts, and both are more often than not considered each man's masterpiece. Their third films (Magnolia and The Royal Tenenbaums) are their real masterpieces - each combined the directors' unique talents with a an ambitious emotional landscape. Their fourth films (Punch-Drunk Love and The Life Aquatic) are stylistic exercises that have managed to alienate the public at large while being embraced by each director's rabid cult audience. (At this point, I should confess that while both directors will continue to be a pleasure to watch for the next few decades, I am wholeheartedly in love with the work of Paul Thomas Anderson). Punch-Drunk Love had an internal logic for all its strageness. The audience was made to feel as disconnected and strange as the protagonist does. This is where the difference between the two directors is most obvious. Wes Anderson has not managed to that with The Life Aquatic. He has failed, for the first time, to come up with an engaging story. The audience spends the entire two hour running time of the movie waiting for something to happen, but very little does. The film is little more than a collection of very precisely framed shots, and quirky behavior that does not resonate because no context has been established for why the characters act this way and no reason for the audience to care about these characters is put forth. I will defend Punch-Drunk Love - while admitting it is a difficult film to embrace - for the rest of my life, but The Life Aquatic will stand as the most disappointing film of 2004. That said, it will be fascinating to see where Wes Anderson goes from here.