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...
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