How did all that movie talent crash?

Ten years ago Owen Wilson, Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze and others promised to revitalise US cinema. As Wilson's latest gets a mauling, Ben Walsh laments their recent record of stinkers

Lame family comedy" was how The Independent's Anthony Quinn described Marmaduke, Hollywood's latest child-friendly caper. Other reviewers have been less kind: "It's suitable for kids, but only as a punishment"; "the human performances are utterly dismal"; "better than Cats & Dogs, but praise hardly comes much lower". The star of this stinker is Owen Wilson, the new go-to man for appalling comedies (see Marley & Me and Drillbit Taylor). But the cerebral, droll Wilson once co-wrote, with the director Wes Anderson (Wilson's childhood friend), the exquisite oddball whimsy Rushmore (1999) and the energetic Bottle Rocket (1996).

Wilson once had enormous promise; as did a group of hugely talented American directors and actors who emerged in the late 1990s. But this "golden generation" has either desperately disappointed or simply vanished. What happened?

"Independent" American cinema had a bumper year in 1999, with the release of Three Kings (directed by David O Russell, starring Spike Jonze); Election (Alexander Payne, starring Reese Witherspoon in her best role); Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, starring John C Reilly); Office Space (Mike Judge, starring Ron Livingston); Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, written by Charlie Kaufman); the splendid Rushmore (Wes Anderson, co-written by Owen Wilson and starring Jason Schwartzman) and American Beauty (Sam Mendes, and starring Thora Birch and Wes Bentley). They're seven magnificent pictures from precocious film-makers and actors at the start of their careers who promised a lot, but it seems only Paul Thomas Anderson hasn't blotted his copybook almost beyond repair.

Rushmore was an audacious and thrilling second feature film from Wes Anderson: a low-key comedy full of great lines ("I saved Latin. What did you ever do?"). Much was expected of Anderson's next feature, The Royal Tenenbaums, and while it did reasonable business and retained the dry humour (the jokes again centring on America's more privileged dysfunctionals) it was faintly underwhelming. His next effort, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, was blessed with Bill Murray at his most laconic, but again it concentrated on a group of insecure goofballs from wealthy backgrounds bemoaning the lack of warmth in their lives. By the time Wes Anderson released The Darjeeling Limited, the wheels had well and truly spun off. Darjeeling was a simply dreary, unfunny look at three privileged (again) brothers (Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson – again – all thoroughly wasted here) muttering and snapping at each other on a train journey through India. Anderson's follow-up, the animation The Fantastic Mr Fox (a subdued take on Roald Dahl's children's classic), was an improvement but irrefutably demonstrated the spark and originality of Rushmore had gone.

Ditto Spike Jonze, another director who has recently turned to a famous children's book for inspiration. Where the Wild Things Are is a long way from the giddy standards of Being John Malkovich, which was the sort of wildly imaginative film that Terry Gilliam has been trying to make for years. A rowdy trip, it featured erotic puppetry, a business world for people of diminutive stature located on the seven-and-a-half-th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper, and a plethora of John Malkovichs. This unruly drama was always going to be hard to improve upon, and Adaptation (2002) was a decent if ill-disciplined follow-up. Where the Wild Things Are was, however, just a shocking disappointment, full of therapy-speak and grumpiness.

Alexander Payne has fared better since Election, directing the melancholy About Schmidt (2001), where Jack Nicholson plays a cheerless accountant trying to find some connection with his daughter, and the lovely Sideways (2004). Since then, apart from directing a segment in the chaotic Paris, Je T'Aime (2006) and the pilot episode of the TV series Hung, Payne has gone awol. Thankfully, he does have a new film out soon, The Descendants, starring George Clooney, which is in post-production. But a six-year gap between feature films is slim pickings from such a talent.

If only we'd had less from Neil LaBute, though. The respected playwright started his film-directing career with a pugnacious one-two: the smart and vicious The Company of Men (1997), starring Aaron Eckhart as a vile misanthrope, followed by Your Friends & Neighbours (1998), which starred a wholly convincing Ben Stiller as a sleazy theatre instructor. LaBute's "voice" has long since gone, silenced by his shambolic remake of Robin Hardy's seminal The Wicker Man (2006). LaBute managed to top this calamity this year with a remake of Frank Oz's 2007 British black comedy Death at a Funeral.

As for David O Russell (Three Kings), he helmed the second-rate comedy I Heart Huckabees in 2004, and then promptly vanished. Mike Judge (Office Space) has concentrated on his affable King of the Hill animation. His two most recent forays into film have been 2006's Idiocracy (a patchy sci-fi satire, starring Luke Wilson – a woefully underused and perennially badly cast actor) and Extract (2009), a workplace comedy in the Office Space mould, which is yet to hit these shores.

The promising actors who emerged under these budding auteurs have, on the whole, fared poorly. Briefly, their wall of shame: Jason Schwartzman (stinkers include Bewitched, Slackers, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story); Luke Wilson (My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Death at a Funeral) and John C Reilly (Step Brothers, Dark Water). At least Ben Stiller, after an army of duds – Night at the Museum, Along Came Polly, Tropic Thunder – has at last tried to retrieve his acting chops this year with his "brave" role as a gloomy New Yorker in Greenberg.

The only one still standing tall is Anderson. He's the only one bold enough to take on grand themes, with his blistering There Will Be Blood (2007). For Owen Wilson, in the words of his slacker/model in Zoolander, "I care desperately about what I do. Do I know what product I'm selling? No. Do I know what I'm doing today? No. But I'm here, and I'm gonna give it my best shot." Ditch the dog-tired comedies, and enrol back at Rushmore, Owen. Give it a shot...

Marmaduke is on general release

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness