Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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It’s not uncommon for a television comedy to lose steam as the years go by. Sometimes it finds a second wind, and usually it does not. There’s nothing remarkable about the fact the The IT Crowd went from critical darling to such a mess that creator Graham Linehan chose to pull the plug rather than drag it on any further. What is remarkable is that it only took 24 episodes to get from that dizzying high to a show-killing low.

I rewatched the fourth and final series recently, and was struck all over again by how lifeless and dull it felt. It’s nothing to do with the performances as the cast makes the best of what they’re given, and any laughs that we do get come from an effective delivery rather than any particular cleverness in the line…there just seems to be a sloppier approach to the comedy, and perhaps an ultimately-destructive assumption — however correct — that the cast could be relied upon to make up for any shortcomings in the writing.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the series’ de-facto finale, “Reynholm vs Reynholm,” which takes ostensibly humorous detours into a silly restaurant. Series one’s “Fifty-Fifty” did the same thing, and I thought it might be interesting to focus only on those detours, and discuss their levels of success.

The Setup

In “Fifty-Fifty” the setup is simple, and completely organic to the plot. (Or, in this case, and in notable contrast to “Renholm vs Renholm,” the plots.) Specifically, a restaurant is recommended by Moss, separately, to both Jen and Roy.

Jen is looking for a nice restaurant in order to make amends for lying about having specialized knowledge of classical music — a lie which leads her romantic interest to use her as his Phone-A-Friend when he appears on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? — and which, of course, causes him to lose.

Roy is looking for an edgy restaurant with a tough atmosphere, because he has a date with a girl he met online, during an experiment he was conducting to see if women are actually more attracted to men that treat them poorly. He creates an antagonistic and disinterested persona, and is looking for a restaurant that will make him seem even tougher for hanging out there.

The restaurant Moss recommends to each is called Mesijos…or, at least, that’s how Moss pronounces it. Here, the visit to the comedy restaurant comes late in the episode, well into the third act, and it’s organic to the twin plots we’ve been following all along.

In “Renholm vs Renholm,” there is no plot by the time we get to the restaurant, because barring a brief introductory scene during which Douglas discusses his ex-wife and is then immediately accosted by his ex-wife, we’re dumped right into it.

This, in itself, is not a problem. There is no requirement, unspoken or otherwise, that every location the characters visit must be fully and completely justified by a logical progression of the script. That being said, there is some sense of satisfaction when that visit is justified, and arises naturally out of the story we are being told…especially when compared to “Renholm vs Renholm,” which has a character we’ve never seen before barging through a door, Matt Berry making a funny face, and then an immediate and unexplained teleportation to a new setting.

When we arrive at the restaurant in “Fifty-Fifty” it’s less abrupt. We know where these characters are going, we know why they’re going, and we know what they hope to accomplish by going. With such narrative groundwork laid, we get an immediate laugh when we see the restaurant for the first time, as in the screenshot above. It’s neither conducive to Jen’s apologetic dinner nor Roy’s attempt at passing himself off as a cold-hearted bastard.

But what’s more, it’s not an unfair subversion. What’s happening here to Jen and Roy is not just a comedy writer putting his characters through hell, it’s absolutely true to what we know about Moss, who recommended the restaurant…more on which later. Suffice it to say that this choice of restaurant — and therefore the episode’s reasons for taking us there — is a natural outgrowth of the story we’ve been following. It’s a bad decision for the characters, but a sound one for the writer.

“Renholm vs Renholm” dumps us into this comedy location for no narrative purpose whatsoever. It simply wants us to laugh.

What’s so bad about that in a comedy program? Nothing; it’s a great impulse. Where this scene falters (or these scenes falter, rather, as we pay not one but three visits to this restaurant) is the fact that it’s not really funny.

In “Fifty-Fifty” we cut from measured conversations about where to go for dinner to a loud, frantic, busy scene that’s immediately funny out of sheer contrast, and continually funny because the madness only ratchets up from there. In “Renholm vs Renholm” we cut from Douglas having one measured conversation about his ex-wife to…Douglas having another measured conversation about his ex-wife.

There’s no contrast. As you can tell from the screen grabs, there’s no shock here. One neutral colored room to another, one woman to another, with Douglas reacting in no particularly humorous way to either conversation, unless you count each of the times the script wants him to make bug eyes.

There’s no reason for Jen and Roy to go to that restaurant in “Fifty-Fifty,” so the script makes sure it creates a reason. There’s no reason for Douglas and Victoria to go to this restaurant in “Renholm vs Renholm,” so the script doesn’t bother discussing it and just hopes we won’t notice. There’s a huge gulf in writing quality there.

The Joke

The joke in “Fifty-Fifty” is evident from the first frame, seen above. Moss has mispronounced “Messy Joe’s,” and both Jen and Roy are stuck on their respective dates in a wholly inappropriate restaurant.

This steadfast mispronunciation is in-line with Moss’s character — he’s similarly misguided when it comes to pronouncing the word “tapas” — and the fact that he both enjoyed himself at this restaurant and doesn’t see that it wouldn’t be appropriate for his friends’ needs suits him as well. Moss is severely lacking in social skills, and his perception of the world around him occurs through psychological filters that the rest of humanity simply does not have.

The sign in itself makes for a great joke without need for comment, and the snap-cut to the madness inside reinforces just how ludicrous the scene is…and yet, it’s not an inherently funny place. There are families there enjoying themselves, after all. The restaurant in itself isn’t a joke…the situation is the joke. Many background characters are perfectly content with their visit to Messy Joe’s. What makes it funny is that the foreground characters are not, and that’s an important distinction to make. The comedy comes from the contrast, not from the fact that Messy Joe’s exists at all.

In “Reynholm vs Reynholm,” however, we find ourselves at the other end of the spectrum. Again, we find ourselves oriented by a still frame of the sign, but if anyone can tell me how “The Flappy Duck” works as anything other than a limp — ahem — dick joke, please do so.

Messy Joe’s manages to function as a series of jokes immediately. The name of the restaurant borne of a mispronunciation, the logo giving away the type of establishment it is, and then the immediate cut to the clowns and screaming children.

The Flappy Duck on the other hand doesn’t get a logo. Neither the sign nor the building have any character whatsoever. It’s a phrase that I guess somebody might chuckle at, somewhere, but The Flappy Duck as a name has nothing to do with the restaurant itself, which appears to be a riff upon trendy establishments with non-traditional dining experiences.

Perhaps, then, The Flappy Duck could use some more personality in its set construction, because the joke doesn’t land. The wine looks like milk, which could lead to some kind of joke, but instead we’re just meant to laugh at the fact that it doesn’t look like wine. That’s not effective comedy, that’s not something that says anything about the characters, and it’s not even a joke with a clear target. I suppose I could hand you a cracker and say “Please hold my shoe,” if I really wanted to, but I don’t suppose anybody would be singing the praises of my wit afterward.

In the first scene at The Flappy Duck, Douglas is eating what looks like a small radio and Victoria has a piece of somebody’s lawn on her plate. Only it’s just sitting there. The actors don’t engage with it, they don’t comment on it, and they don’t see anything strange about it. Whereas the Messy Joe’s debacle was a conflict borne entirely of — and heightened satisfyingly by — immense contrast, The Flappy Duck just has people talking quietly about not-particularly-funny topics while not-particularly-funny things sit baldly and blandly on their plates.

That might work in a Spot the Difference puzzle in the Sunday paper, but it doesn’t make for a particularly well-constructed scene in a sitcom.

“Fifty-Fifty” keeps the jokes coming by simply highlighting how uncomfortable the characters are. Most great comedy is on some level generated from somebody’s discomfort, and that’s why the visit to Messy Joe’s is funny. Having Douglas and Victoria — and later Jen and Victoria — sit comfortably at ease with whatever minor absurdities may be sitting on their plates isn’t funny. That’s a lesson that The Simpsons seems to have forgotten as well; when the family doesn’t fit in, it’s funny. When the family not only fits in but qualifies as global celebrities with people of great fame and power at their beck and call, it’s not.

Jen is here in order to apologize to the man whose chance at fortune she ruined with her lies. All around them balloons pop, children bleat and sparklers fizz. These two characters don’t need to tell jokes, because — all at once — they are the jokes. The world has turned and left them in a position of ridicule. They became, ironically, the most ridiculous thing in Messy Joe’s.

Ditto Roy. His ill-conceived bid at being taken for a tough guy may have been destined to fail, but by meeting his date in this environment it’s already unraveled before it even gets started. When a child next to him dances around with his shirt over his head, Roy needs to call a clown in to keep the peace. When a waitress hands him his milkshake, he too politely thanks her for it. These are jokes that come from characterization, and ones that rise organically from tight and skillfull writing. This scene didn’t need to be set at Messy Joe’s in particular, but what Linehan managed to do was graft one great and escalating joke onto a situation that was already funny in itself. In short, he took a good thing and made it better.

At The Flappy Duck, he’s making it worse. Bored, perhaps, of the aimlessness of this dinner, he has Victoria rise and address the camera like a character in a soap operas. Of course, the other diners wonder what she’s doing, and that in itself is a pretty good joke. It’s oversold here by having Victoria engage with the other customers and ask what they’re eating — drawing attention to an absurdity that she should probably not be aware of in order for the joke to work — but it’s something.

It’s also, however, not related to the setting at all. Whereas the Messy Joe’s stuff could have taken place elsewhere, it’s funnier because of where it’s set. The Flappy Duck material could still keep us in Douglas’ office, and work no less well for it. In fact, it might work better, as our presence at The Flappy Duck adds only confusion to the scene, as we keep waiting for a payoff that never comes.

Douglas does have one line — announcing the arrival of their invisible desserts — that makes a token stab at tying the action into the set they’re sitting on and probably wondering why anyone bothered to build, but true to the slapdash feel of the script nobody comments on this, and it lies there like a non-sequitur. It’s a singular attempt, at last, to find some comedy in The Flappy Duck, and nobody cares enough to see it through.

It’s not that the Flappy Duck sequence(s) couldn’t be funny, it’s that the writing isn’t working to make it funny. The attempted punchline here is that Douglas introduces the head chef to his wife while she jacks him off under the table with her foot. It’s a chance for Matt Berry to make yet another funny face but it would unquestionably be more interesting to watch if they gave that face something funny to say. Which leads us to the biggest issue…

The Writing

The distance between these two examples in terms of writing quality is staggering. Despite both episodes being penned by Linehan, “Fifty-Fifty” seems to have an innate understanding of why its ideas are funny, and it exploits that knowledge to mine the comedy more deeply, efficiently, and effectively. “Reynholm vs Reynholm” doesn’t seem to know why it’s supposed to be funny, and it relies on the actors to sell an idea that feels like it was never fully conceived before the episode was shot.

At Messy Joe’s, the jokes don’t stop after the initial reveal. Rather we move logically along the comedy scale, compounding the situation until it hits its breaking point. From the initial reveal to Jen sitting apologetically across from her date to a mariachi band attempting to serenade them to a clown pointing and laughing at the loser who blew his shot on Millionaire, every moment feels like a step forward for the plot, for the characters, and for the comedy.

“Reynholm vs Reynholm” spins its wheels without any clear destination in mind. Its singular plot is about the reappearance of Douglas’ ex-wife, whom he remarries and then wishes again to divorce. For no reason whatsoever, they discuss this at The Flappy Duck. For even less of a reason, Jen also meets Victoria there to deliver the news that Douglas wants a divorce. And then for no reason whatsoever, the four main characters gather at the end of the show to drink milky wine and celebrate the fact that they limped to the end of the episode and never have to film scenes for it again.

“Reynholm vs Reynholm” flails wildly for something to cling to, with references to past episodes being tossed out in the hopes that they’ll get a chuckle out of recognition and the long-overdue return of Richmond, but these last-ditch acrobatics are unsuccessful in distracting us from the fact that this is an episode about a character we’ve never met, which doesn’t seem to have any real stakes for the show nor any basis in reality, and which is resolved in a deliberately unsatisfying manner.

Far be it from me to suggest that we have to care about the characters in order for the jokes to land, but I do think that the show has to at least pretend that it thinks we care, and by this point Linehan no longer feels interested in that.

Nobody at home will ever be moved to tears by the plight of Moss and Roy — let alone Douglas — but the show needs to at least keep up the illusion that somebody might. That’s the only way it can successfully generate comedy from the awkward situations in which these characters find themselves. Admit that we shouldn’t care and disbelief is shattered: we suddenly don’t care about them, and we’re going to wonder why we’re watching.

“Fifty-Fifty” works because it maintains the illusion that these events mean something. When Roy is frustrated by women and attempts to demonstrate how shallow they are with his experiment, it means something. When he becomes sucked into that experiment himself and tries to date the woman who fell for him, that means something too. When Jen lies about having a knowledge of classical music because she wants to impress a handsome stranger, that means something. When she disappoints him and reveals the truth, that also means something.

It all builds toward a climactic clown beating that sees Roy’s date falling for Jen’s date, demonstrating that — in this case at least — Roy’s hypothesis was correct, and Jen’s paid the price for her falsehood.

This isn’t destiny that brought these plot strands together. This isn’t fate, isn’t luck, isn’t karma. It’s writing. And it’s the work of a writer in command of his craft.

By “Reynholm vs Reynholm,” that sort of command is no longer felt. Episodes feel like strings of set-pieces and unrelated moments. Some of them get laughs, some of them do not. That much is common in sitcoms. But that’s exactly why we need a thread to cling to…something to follow along. Some gesture on behalf of the show that says, “If you’d like to care about this, or even pretend to, for just half an hour, we’ll make it worth your time.”

When “Reynholm vs Reynholm” dumps us time and again into the humorless Flappy Duck, it’s an act of narrative desperation. There’s nothing Linehan can think to do with the main cast or setting, so we’re transported to this new location with a new character in the vague hope that, somehow, it will pay off.

But it never does. And when Victoria eats a knife even though they aren’t edible, it’s as though Linehan forgot that he already made that joke earlier with Douglas and the menu. It’s not a callback, it’s not a fulfillment of foreshadowing, it’s not thematic resonance. It’s desperation…or at least that’s what it feels like.

There’s something to be said for going out on top. With The IT Crowd, Linehan didn’t do that. But by choosing to end it before he dug too deeply into mediocrity, he did the next best thing.

It would have been nice to have a fourth (and fifth, and sixth) great series, but that wasn’t in the cards.

Oh well. We’ll always have Mesijos.

As in the case of the Reader Mail feature from Monday, Compare & Contrast is something I’d like to do periodically on this blog, and I have a good number of things I’d like to eventually write about in this fashion. But now, since it’s Wes Anderson month, and since my girlfriend and I just rewatched Bottle Rocket, I thought this might be a great time to introduce it.

After all, for the first time, I think I’ve figured out just why that film’s handling of the central romantic relationship rubs me the wrong way. It also made me think about a pretty similar corollary in The Darjeeling Limited, which I think handles the same material far more impressively, and retroactively sheds some light on what Bottle Rocket did wrong.

The Situation

In both cases a well-enough-off American man seduces a young woman of differing cultural heritage. In both cases the men are guests at their places of employment, and the women are employed to keep them comfortable.

In Bottle Rocket, the American man is Anthony Adams, played by Luke Wilson. Anthony is staying at a motel with two of his friends when he first sets eyes on the woman, a housekeeper named Inez.

He doesn’t speak to her, but he follows her with his eyes, and his facial expression (alongside the tellingly infatuated camera work) makes clear that he feels something for her. On the surface however, there’s no real way to separate whatever he thinks he feels from simple lust.

In The Darjeeling Limited, the American man is Jack Whitman, played by Jason Schwartzman. Jack is traveling by train with his two brothers when he first sets eyes on the woman, a stewardess named Rita.

Rita appears with snacks and drinks for the brothers, and, as such, Jack does engage her directly as part of their first meeting. Compared to Anthony, he is taking an active role, and not simply staring at her from afar (it also helps that Rita is aware of both his presence, and his gaze).

Rita, in contrast to Inez, is a known quantity. Jack knows at least something about her, which makes his feelings — more on what feelings those are in a moment — more understandable than those of Anthony, who doesn’t even know what Inez sounds like…he can only know that he likes the way she looks.

Jack also much more openly has hunger in his eyes. Rita offers him savory snacks and sweet lime, but it’s an unspoken third option that he seizes immediately upon. Jack, in a word, is predatory. So is Anthony. The major difference here, however, is that The Darjeeling Limited is aware of the decidedly un-savory nature of Jack’s motives, while Bottle Rocket remains naive. As a result, it’s Bottle Rocket that fails to handle the situation maturely…something that ties at least somewhat into Anthony’s character, but also would have benefited greatly from some larger, film-wide acknowledgment that we’re not supposed to agree with his actions.

The Courtship

Instead, we have the romance playing out successfully, which indicates that Anderson didn’t quite understand how problematic the situation actually is. Anthony essentially stalks Inez, and his overtures to her don’t sound as innocent as he certainly thinks they do. In fact, they belie a predatory mentality that Anthony wouldn’t recognize in himself, in spite of the fact that he goes about trailing Inez, forcing himself into her routine and even ignoring her instructions not to follow her into a guest’s room. Anthony is essentially courting Inez in such a way that in reality would have had the police — or at least a motel security guard — called on him.

In Jack’s case, he is more aware of the lustful nature of his attraction, and even proclaims to his brothers his intentions to sleep with her. Jack Whitman is under no delusions about what he wants, and he makes no secret of it. His courtship of Rita is as accelerated and urgent as Anthony’s, but whereas Anthony believed he was in love and followed Inez around to prove it, Jack just wanted to fuck, and beckoned to Rita to follow him down.

So far, so fair. After all, different characters might feel different things, and they should certainly be going about achieving their goals in different ways. But there’s one thing we haven’t discussed yet, and it’s a big one: the language barrier.

This is where the major difference comes to light: Inez does not speak English. Or, at least, not very well. She doesn’t understand most of what Anthony is saying to her, and while that’s certainly a humorous situation as he knowingly engages her in conversation anyway, it leads to a somewhat unsettling feeling when the topics turn more serious, and we have no reason to believe that Inez understands what they’re even discussing, at least not without an interpreter. One is fortunately on hand in the form of a dishwasher named Rocky, but he is notably not present for most of Anthony and Inez’s conversations.

The advantage here is firmly on Anthony’s side. He is the one with the money, and Inez is there to help. They’re both sharing the same space, but if Inez upsets him — or any guest — she is liable to lose her job, and be replaced rather easily. Anthony has no such fears or cause for concern. It’s notable that Anthony is even more ignorant of Spanish than Inez is of English, but that need not trouble him, as she barely says anything to him in return.

This should speak pretty loudly to Anthony — and to Anderson — that Inez is not interested at best, and fearful and intimidated at worst. At one point in the film Anthony takes a small picture from Inez and, assuming it’s her, asks to keep it. It’s actually a picture of her sister that she keeps in a locket that she wears at all times. Anthony asks if he can have it anyway, and she agrees…though there’s really no reason for us to assume that she understands the question. This American man who has followed her around all day and interfered with her job has now taken from her an item of immense sentimental value. At this early stage in his directorial career, Anderson doesn’t see that that might be illustrating something other than love.

Jack, on the other hand, has no such difficulty communicating with Rita. She speaks his language, and his lack of interest in hers is a theme that The Darjeeling Limited explores in many ways across all brothers. It’s not shrugged off as Bottle Rocket allows Anthony’s to be; it’s a symptom of who Jack Whitman is, and the film doesn’t endorse his viewpoint.

When Jack engages with Rita, he does so as one adult human being to another. He is fully aware of her station in his life — and in life in general — and it’s clear that he does not consider her to be his equal (another theme explored by the film later on). He will say nice things to her and treat her well in an attempt to win her physical favors…but beyond that, there is nothing. He pretends that there is not a clear imbalance of power in their dynamic, but you can be certain he hasn’t forgotten it.

Jack’s courtship of Rita is no more or less hollow than Anthony’s of Inez. They’re exactly the same in terms of what they want — if not what they think they want — and they’re executed in similarly despicable ways. The difference is that Jack is aware of his inherent womanizing, and simply dresses it up in a nice suit when it goes out to play. Anthony is not aware of what he’s doing, and, as we’ll see in a moment, neither is Anderson.

Sealing the Deal

In each case, the elaborate seduction plot is a success. Both Anthony and Jack bed their respective sirens of the service industry, but the difference is that in Jack’s case, it makes some sort of logical sense; Rita behaves in some understandable, identifiable way. In Anthony’s case, Inez falls for him because the script requires her to do so, and what we see next is less an organic unfolding of a new relationship than it is a forced plot point without any clear connection to what we’ve seen before.

Early on, Inez is reluctant even to share the same physical space with Anthony. She’s rightfully concerned about this strange man who keeps plying her with words she can’t understand and refusing to leave her alone. She is uneasy and nervous around him, and all of that is perfectly fitting for the situation at hand. I would never argue that a capable artist can’t turn this, eventually, into a sort of complicated romance, but first the artist would need to be aware of how incompatible it is with such a traditional outcome. Instead, Anderson has Inez fall for Anthony as well, simply because she has to, in the small space of time it takes his friend Dignan to get a haircut.

She still can’t speak his language and it was only a matter of hours prior that his relentless hounding was both terrifying and unwelcome to her, but now she embraces him and kisses him in the swimming pool, because it makes for an admittedly nice image and that’s what the script told her to do. In an unintentional bit of artistic racism, Inez’s character doesn’t actually get to be portrayed like a human being with thoughts and feelings of her own.

By contrast, Rita in The Darjeeling Limited does not undergo the immediate magic of a script that needs a love scene. She does succumb to Jack, but she does so in a way that suggests that this is nothing new. Rich Americans come through here all the time, and this is just one way of coping with the endless stream. In fact, her physical engagement with Jack may well be as much a game for her as it is for him, and though he does selfishly interfere as she’s trying to do her job, as did Anthony, Rita is able to stand her ground and tell him to back off. That Jack doesn’t oblige shows us two things: that he knows what he’s doing, and that Anderson knows what he’s doing.

Rita, likewise, is not romanticized by camera angles and soft focus. Jack catches her in unflattering situations, such as when she’s smoking a cigarette through an open window. Rita is treated like a human being by the film, rather than as some heavenly agent of wish-fulfillment that doesn’t need a personality of its own. She can stand up to Jack, she can stand up to her boyfriend, and she can make her own decisions. Eventually she even has the strength to call Jack on his bullshit. That one of her decisions is to sleep with him anyway may well reflect poorly on her, but it at least does not reflect inhumanly on her.

The actual sex scenes as well as also ripe for comparison. In the case of Bottle Rocket, Anthony trots romantically around in search of Inez, whom he finds cleaning a vacant room, because she’s a minority and that’s what they do when they’re not washing dishes. She obligingly lays down and undresses, the strains of “Alone Again Or” by Love fills the air, and the two unlikely (and unrealistic) love birds smile like children and enjoy each other beneath an artfully fluttering sheet. In short, it’s exactly what Max Fischer imagined a night with Miss Cross would be like in Rushmore…before she dashed his naive and idealized view of sex. As lovely as this scene is out of context, it doesn’t fit into the actual flow or characterization of anything we’ve seen before, and, as such, it just makes it seem as though Anderson still had some growing up to do.

He’s certainly grown up by the time of The Darjeeling Limited, as Jack’s sex with Rita is raw, impersonal, and not romanticized in the slightest. The two don’t even bother to disrobe, the only soundtrack is the train rattling noisily around them, and any possibility of romance is dashed by Jack’s abrupt digital penetration and Rita’s instructions not to cum inside of her.

It’s not romantic, and it’s certainly not sexy. But Jack and Rita don’t want romance, and they don’t care if they’re sexy. They want to have sex, and they have neither the time nor interest to make it anything more meaningful. When Anthony beds Inez, the movie presents it to us as a grand, triumphant moment for both of them. When Jack takes Rita against the wall of a moving train, the movie presents it to us as something that happened. And that’s okay, because when two strangers have sex, that’s all that it is.

That might sound like a kind of cheap way to put it, but not if you’ve ever fucked before it isn’t.

The Resonance

In other words, the big difference between these two films is that The Darjeeling Limited is aware of what’s happening, and presents it realistically. Bottle Rocket is not at all aware of what’s happening, and so is able to present it in a much more romanticized light. The latter sounds appealing, but it serves as a barricade for the audience. The former they can believe in, but the latter seems to exist somewhere without them, separate — and notably so — from how they could have reasonably expected these events to transpire.

This is clear as well from contrasting the ways these men express their feelings to others. In Anthony’s case, he picks up a crayon and doodles Inez — tellingly without eyes or a mouth but with pronounced mammaries — riding a horse. The horse has nothing to do with Inez, or with any of her interests, or with anything he could possibly know about her. In fact, the only word he scrawls alongside the picture, three times, is her name…again, one of the very, very few things he knows about her, which should really remind the audience how shallow this “love” must be, in spite of everything the film wants to tell us to the contrary.

In Jack’s case, he expresses himself through the clearly more mature method of writing fiction. (I’m not trying to put my own literary tendencies on a pedestal here…I just think it’s safe to say that writing fiction is more or less universally understood to suggest more maturity than drawing on the backs of placemats with crayons.)

We don’t know that he will write about Rita, but we do know that he wrote about his experiences at the Hotel Chevalier and at Luftwaffe Automotive…two other scenes in the film that Jack could only process by writing about them. In fact, Jack may well not write about Rita. Why would he? She is one of many woman he will sleep with, and it’s possible that he won’t even remember her name.

Jack has a method of dealing with things — or, perhaps, a method of avoiding having to deal with them — and it’s up to him whether or not Rita should ever factor into that. She might not…she means nothing to him, and he always knew that. So did the film.

Anthony labors under the misapprehension that Inez means more to him than she really could, and so he picks up a crayon and gets to work. We do see Anthony doodle once more in the film — a nice flipbook animation of Dignan pole-vaulting during their upcoming heist — but it’s more a way of passing the time than it is any serious and mature exploration of the feelings and concerns racing around inside of him. Point: Whitman.

The Aftermath

For Anthony, he and Inez get to live happily ever after, at least as far as the film is concerned. We leave Dignan in prison, Bob Mapplethorpe is getting along with his brother, and Anthony is happy with Inez, who plans to send Dignan a care package. Everything’s worked out just fine for these two crazy kids who couldn’t understand a word each other said and had nothing in common or any reason to connect or to continue corresponding, let alone develop their relationship into anything larger than “housekeeper” and “that creepy guy who fucked the housekeeper.”

It feels unearned, not least because Inez doesn’t even get to show up in person at the end of the film and let us know — in some way — what she’s feeling. We see that it makes Anthony happy, and that’s enough. Or is supposed to be. In reality, it just feels disjointed. Inez recoiled from him, then slept with him, then said she loved him, and then apparently entered into a serious relationship with him, but we never get any insight into why, or into how she might be feeling. Does Rocky still come along on their dates to translate? Bottle Rocket frames the situation as a triumph of romance, but it just feels like a story we can’t understand…perhaps as though it’s being told in an unfamiliar language.

For Jack there is no aftermath, because he was always aware that there wasn’t a relationship in the first place. There was no love involved. They had sex. Jack would have liked to have had more. When the Whitmans are kicked off the train Rita leans out of a window to offer him savory snacks, and something very strange and unexpected happens: she cries.

Unlike in Bottle Rocket, where emotion was constantly abound whether or not it was needed, appropriate or earned, here emotion was never part of the arrangement. Rita cries for Jack, because she feels sorry for him. Jack, hoping it’s not as personal as it really is, assumes she must have accidentally gotten maced during the brotherly spat that got them ejected.

He remains distant, and cold. He’s more comfortable without the personality, without the investment, and without the emotion. He walks to keep pace with the train as it pulls away, as the strains of “Charu’s Theme” play behind him. There was no music during the sex and no real soundtrack to the seduction, but here, at last, is Jack’s artistic overture toward romance: the goodbye. For Jack, the romance is in the heartbreak. He may not feel compelled to make every sexual encounter one to remember, but he sure knows how to make an exit.

Wes Anderson, as noted above, would do much better with handling cross-barrier romances in the future, whether it’s teacher / student, adopted siblings, or the stunted courtship of Ned Plimpton and Jane Winslett-Richardson. He made one mistake early on, but after those awkward romantic fumblings, he sure grew up fast.

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