Deconstructing the humor of one of the most iconically idiosyncratic directors working today: Wes Anderson.
Wes Anderson films are loved by many. They’re engaging, quotable and artful. They’re also funny. Laugh out loud funny? Sometimes. Are they comedies? Not exactly. But, the humor is the glue that holds these stories together.
The comedy makes the tragedy go down smoother. Anderson knows how to “sugarcoat the pill." (Which is something every screenwriter should aim to master.)
His tales center on lonely people, often in dire, desperate circumstances or reckoning with grief. A trademark sense of levity, however, makes that misery not only palatable but delightful. This video essay by The Discarded Image outlines how Wes Anderson and his various co-writers, including Owen Wilson, Noah Baumbach, and Roman Coppola, make us laugh.
Let’s look at the major takeaways of Anderson-style humor and how it works.
Veneer vs. Reality
Wes Anderson is known as a craftsman of delicate worlds. His beautiful, meticulous visual scenery is like a shell about to crack. Underneath, there is an abyss of darkness. The contrast is apparent in The Royal Tenenbaums. Every member of the dysfunctional family is on the brink of emotional collapse, but the world they inhabit is highly organized and laughably neat.
Disruption of Character
Monsieur Gustave H. (played by Ralph Fiennes), concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a very civil man, whose even temper never breaks. That’s why it’s so hilarious when he insults someone or curses.
Rudeness at Odds with Setting
Civil, polite setting: rude behavior. Let’s look at Rushmore for example. In a memorable, awkward scene, Max (Jason Schwartzman), Rosemary (Olivia Williams) and her new scrubs-wearing beau Peter (Luke Wilson) are dining at a fancy restaurant. Max needles at Peter mercilessly; his devotion to Rosemary cannot be contained, and neither can his contempt for Peter. Max disrupts the placid atmosphere of the restaurant, and the results are irresistibly funny.
Politeness at Odds with Setting
Much of Anderson’s humor derives from characters maintaining an even temper in the face of chaos and incivility. In Budapest, Gustave must preserve his dignified demeanor while surviving his stay in a barbaric prison. As his fellow inmates are busy killing each other, Gustave is primarily concerned with his scent.
We all have animal instincts. Especially if you are a fox (Fantastic Mr. Fox) or a misfit canine (Isle of Dogs). Anderson makes us laugh with the constant struggle to keep these rabid tendencies at bay.
Max orchestrates ambitious plays, Steve Zissou runs a very “tight ship”, and Gustave is a perfectionist. Maps, plans, inventories. But the payoff from a comedic perspective comes when it all comes crashing down and all the planning fails.
We appear composed, but we are out of control. We warn each other politely before fist fights (see The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited). These outbreaks of violence among close friends go all the way back to Bottle Rocket. “Rudeness is an expression of fear," the Discarded Image posits. Underneath that fear, we just want to be loved. Outbursts of emotional and physical violence stand out prominently in his films, but they happen so frequently that we must conclude they’re at the core of his work.
Wes Anderson characters are misfits in mourning, barely holding it together, as they move through “inhospitable, candy-colored worlds.” Rudeness is a “thin veneer that keeps suffering at bay.” (And this tension can be very funny.) Protocol and manners are the reverse side of this same coin: a mask.
Do you think there are other key methods Anderson uses to create humor? Let us know in the comments!