Wes Anderson is one of the most distinctive directors working today. And while much of his identifiable style comes from physical elements—those pan shots landing on dead center, those immaculately crafted clothes and sets, that Futura font—he also brings to the table several utterly human and utterly hilarious performances. With the release of his latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, we thought it was a good time to survey his work and bring you the funniest character from each film (with runners-up, too, because we like him so dang much).
Dignan (Owen Wilson)
One way to test if a character is not just a character but an Iconic Comedic Character is how well some of their most memorable lines lend themselves to becoming inside jokes amongst friends. For me, Dignan’s immortal line is a pitch perfect response to Kumar’s excuse for screwing up. “I lost my touch, man,” pleads Kumar. Dignan’s response: “Did you ever have a touch to lose?” It’s this ongoing sense of righteous indignation (fitting perfectly with the character’s name) that I find so paralyzingly funny. For Dignan, pulling off these heists should be simple, so long as everyone follows his plan (more on Wilson’s predilection of playing this kind of role later). When things get out of hand, as they invariably do when average Joes try and commit crimes, it’s truly a pleasure to watch Wilson find all the diverse shadings and notes of frustration in his performance.
Runner-Up: Abe Henry (James Caan)
Bottle Rocket seemed to resonate with older, tough-guy stalwarts of cinema, receiving cosigns from both Martin Scorsese and Caan, the latter of which delivers a gut-bustingly versatile performance. If I ever get rich and buy a mansion, I will be playing his song about having a beautiful house 24 hours a day.
Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman)
In some ways a bizarro male equivalent to Tracy Flick (can you imagine how insufferable their kids would be?), Max Fischer, played by revolutionary 18-year-old Jason Schwartzman, possesses a rigidly focused drive that stands steadfast no matter what falls apart around him. It’s this disparity between intent and result that fuels much of the film’s comedic engine. Grades in school falling? No matter, as Max will continue to run every extracurricular activity, from Calligraphy Club to Bombardment Society. Stuck with a group of awkwardly stilted teenage actors? No matter, as every theatrical production will be stuffed with period appropriate props, costumes, and even special effects. In love with an adult woman even though you’re 15? No matter, as Max’s devotion beyond practicality makes us laugh the whole movie through.
Runner-Up: Herman Blume (Bill Murray)
Murray’s subdued yet confident performance gave us probably the single funniest tracking shot in cinema, wherein Blume stops a phone call to block a basketball shot made by a random little kid.
Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman)
Royal is relentless. A ball of caustic energy and momentum, he’s a man who lies about having stomach cancer before wolfing down cheeseburgers, who belittles and screams at Danny Glover’s Henry Sherman before flipping on a dime and insisting everything’s fine. He takes his grandkids out for a raucous day in New York, getting what is either dog or human blood on them in the process. Sometimes he feels like a stunted manchild who refuses to listen to anything other than his own id (shooting his young son Chas with a BB gun even though they’re “on the same team”, for example). However, underneath it all I believe he is who he is for the good of the family. At the end of the day, he’s interested in reunion and reconciliation; he just happens to be incredibly no-nonsense about it. It’s these abrupt shifts between aggressive and sensitive personalities that make us laugh the hardest, and make us feel as though Royal isn’t just a king, but a jester.
Runner-Up: Pagoda (Kumar Pallana)
Royal’s right-hand-man is the strong, silent type, which makes his eventual outbursts of quiet (“There he goes”) and loud (stabbing Royal again) energy all the more spit-take inducingly funny.
Steve Zissou (Bill Murray)
Zissou feels things quietly, but deeply. The movie’s “quiet then loud” comedic beats almost work like a classic Pixies song—Murray possesses a chilly, sad and utterly subdued state of being towards the insanity around him until his frustrations burst to the surface, and we get a brilliantly cutting line like, “Son of a bitch, I am sick of these dolphins.” Murray’s enigmatic style of playing emotions close to the chest provide ample comedic contrast even in big action scene beats, like when they rescue Jeff Goldblum’s Allistair Hennessey (“Steven, are you rescuing me?” Murray’s response, a pained half-smile and barely-there head cock, is deadpan brilliance). It’s a marked 180 from his constantly talking, wisecracking comedic personas in classics like Ghostbusters or Caddyshack, and, in my humble opinion, undoubtedly the most fruitful of his and Anderson’s collaborations.
Runner-Up: Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe)
Klaus is such a sweetheart. When Dafoe dials up the sadness and earnestness, like when Klaus doesn’t get picked for Zissou’s A squad, or when he tries so hard to figure out which side of the line to stand on, I can’t help but laugh and aww simultaneously (lawwugh?).
Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson)
“I try my hardest. I don’t know what else to do.” Francis is the man with the plan, or several hundred of them. His tenacious need to be in control of everything and everyone, in a lesser portrayal, could seem cloying and hostile. Yet Wilson imbues him with such infectious positivity that I can’t help but find him endearingly funny. When he orders everyone’s food, assigns train beds, or holds onto everyone’s passports, it’s out of love. Even when he has a moment of darkness—like the film’s funniest line, “Look at these assholes”—it’s immediately balanced by light—they jump into the river to try and save those assholes. With so much cynicism in modern comedy, Wilson’s character is a refreshing change of pace.
Runner-Up: The Businessman (Bill Murray)
Would anyone else really like to see the alternate universe version of this movie that opens with Bill Murray making his train? His nervous, comedic, borderline noir energy is insanely intriguing and promising—proof that Anderson and Murray need only the briefest of moments to create a lasting comedic impression.
Mr. Fox (George Clooney)
Mr. Fox is blessed with the charming, inviting, and urbane voice of Mr. Clooney, and on the surface his personality seems to follow suit. He wears corduroy suits, writes a newspaper column and has a lovely wife and son. Yet underneath, as he plainly states to Mrs. Fox, he is a wild animal. It’s a simple yet effective central contrast that provides much of the character’s comedic engine. I love watching how both sides of his personality invade the other. When he does something “civilized” like give a dinner toast, he can’t help but steal it under the nose of Bill Murray’s Badger, like a wild animal. And when he does something “wild” like steal chickens from a farmer, he demands it’s done with the utmost civility—signals, secret agent moves and wicked cool bandit masks (Also, he tries to speak French to the random wolf he meets). The fact that Clooney can make this flip-flopping feel consistent and understandable, not to mention hilarious, is proof positive of his fantastic voice talent.
Runner-Up: Petey (Jarvis Cocker)
Guys, Petey’s just trying to sing us an earnest little ditty full of nonsense syllables. And what does he get for his troubles? “That’s just weak songwriting. You wrote a bad song, Petey.” Unfair criticism of a truly funny song.
Social Services (Tilda Swinton)
Swinton’s impeccable comic concoction represents Anderson’s love of focused, driven characters to its logical conclusion. “Social Services” is so defined by her duties, responsibilities, and obligations, that she has literally no other identity beyond those. When she says “I’m Social Services,” she ain’t just saying her job; it’s her name, too. Beyond this conceptually heady comedic idea, Swinton fills out her role with screwball rat-a-tat rapid fire delivery, phenomenally exhausted straight man work (“I am told that he has just been struck by lightning?”) and a uniquely appropriate quirk of referring to herself in the third person—which, again, is Social Services. For my money, Moonrise Kingdom might be Anderson’s most heart-on-its-sleeve film, with its central love story and characters in positions of authority making decisions based purely on how they feel. Thus, it’s satisfyingly hilarious to see that butted up against a character who is purely “brain”, purely “authority”, purely, well, Social Services.
Runner-Up: Captain Duffy Sharp (Bruce Willis)
I’ve seen Willis play all kinds of heroes, but never one with as much sensitivity, soul and straight-up fear. The look on his face when he’s on the roof rescuing Sam in the lightning storm had me laughing ‘til I cried.
M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes)
There’s one scene in Anderson’s latest that succinctly sums up why Fiennes’ portrayal of hotel concierge Gustave is so riotously funny. Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton) arrives at the titular hotel to arrest Gustave for the murder of Madame D (Tilda Swinton in absurdly wonderful makeup). When presented with this, Gustave blanches and wilts pathetically, “And you think I did it?” Then, he abruptly turns around and runs as fast as he can, shocking both the arresting officers and the audience. What is his plan, exactly? Does he honestly think he can escape; more importantly, if he didn’t do it, why does he need to? This cocktail of immaculately constructed and composed airs on the surface mixed with highly emotional and even vulgar instincts in the center (which, I might argue, sums up Wes Anderson’s general schtick in a nutshell) serves as the central reason why Anderson’s newest central character might be his out-and-out funniest.
Runner-Up: Dmitri (Adrien Brody)
The mustache. The hair coif. The way he says “candy-ass” and means it. Need I say more?