I spent a bunch of the weekend rewatching Wes Anderson movies, in part for a piece I was working on for The Atlantic, in part because watching The Royal Tenenbaums tends to make me want to watch Rushmore, and then to rewatch The Life Aquatic in the hopes that it will be slightly better than I remember. It’s been a while since I’ve watched any of those three movies in full, and one thing that stood out to me was the conversational pacing. The rise of both the Frat Pack and SNL alums like Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin in our comedy has, I think accustomed us to a lot of very fast-paced improvisational conversation, a world in which everyone is naturally more witty, possessed of a permanently faster riposte reaction than we are. But Anderson’s conversations are often awkwardly slow in a way that seems manners by comparison but are, I think, actually how many of us would sound in similar situations.
Take the scene from Rushmore when Max is telling Herman’s wife that her husband is having an affair. He’s wants to do more than blurt it out, so he’s set up this weird little hospitality spread on the roof of the building where they’re meeting, and she tries to play along, but can only hold it together for so long:
I think that attempt at normalcy, on both sides, makes an odd amount of sense, both in the context of the movie, and in our own world (in Anderson’s movies, you can’t take for granted that they overlap, mostly to charming effect).
The same awkwardness is often present around Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums because she’s so often lying, or affectless in a way that means the people around her don’t know how to deal with her:
When she’s saying she doesn’t smoke, she’s composing herself for the lie. When she’s stopping to consider how long she’s smoked in response to her mother’s question, she fact-checking herself. When her father takes her out for ice cream in an attempt to replicate moments they should have had decades ago, they’re feeling for conversational rhythms and reactions that ought to have been familiar but instead are cliches they’re trying to adopt.
The Life Aquatic is a vastly less good movie than either of the prior two, and it has, in much of its conversations, that fast, glib quality. But unlike the pauses, speeding up Anderson’s dialogue actually sounds vastly more mannered:
When the characters in prior movies are struggling to sound clever, it’s possible to have some kind of sympathy for what they come up with. When they just toss around complaints about a nemesis or make elaborate pronunciations of revenge, it’s kind of exhausting. These are not real humans with real concerns about how they’re portrayed and what weight their words have. They’re too-perfect creations, designed to elicit emotional reactions from us. It’s impossible to get close to them.