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
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
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.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week