Luke Wilson: Wes Anderson’s Melancholy Baby

Some may call him morose, depressive, or woebegone, but I’ll call him a leading man. Join me as I take a tour through the filmography of Wes Anderson’s most melancholy leading man, Luke Wilson.

Get ready for sad motels and moody sunglasses…

Most directors choose leading men who have charisma, confidence and a winning sense of optimism. Someone the audience will cling to in any situation, good or bad.

It’s not often that you’d describe a leading man as meek, solemn, or incredibly soft-spoken…but thus encapsulates the charm of that uniquely Andersonian enigma, Luke Wilson.


Wilson’s professional journey begins in, why not, a psychiatric unit. His character Anthony is staying there voluntarily until his best friend Dignan comes to bust him out. Not that he actually needs busting out. The dynamic between the two instantly becomes clear. Dignan is Don Quixote and Anthony is his Sancho Panza, indulging every whim.

While the two are co-leads of Wes Anderson’s film debut, Bottle Rocket, I’d argue Luke Wilson’s character is the audience surrogate. He’s mentally exhausted and I read him as quite depressed, which is what brings him to the psychiatric unit. At first, the audience feels sorry for Anthony when they see his hospital wristband, but when it’s revealed he’s pretending to escape so his best friend can be happy, viewers understand he’s a good person.

It’s a sympathy/empathy one-two punch. Throw in the fact that Anthony says good-bye to everyone on his way out and you’ve got one kind and well-behaved character that can hold the weight of an oddball heist/road trip comedy on his shoulders.

It’s this inherent kindness that emanates from Luke for the rest of the movie, clashing with his brother Owen’s prickly character Dignan, who’s often distrusting and condescending to other people. Anthony helps keep Dignan from spiraling into delusion by always having one foot firmly planted in reality. But given the character’s inner struggles, it’s apparent that his friendship takes a toll…


Rushmore’s a smaller role, with Wilson only showing up for a few scenes. He plays Rosemary Cross’ date, Dr. Peter Flynn, who accompanies her to Max Fischer’s theatrical adaptation of Serpico. Max does his best to cut down his perceived romantic rival at every turn by repeatedly forgetting his name and dispensing sick burns.

Although Wilson’s role is brief, he shows up at the end of the movie at Max’s climactic Vietnam play to show that Max is now a bigger man. A man he once treated poorly is now one of his invited guests.


But the role that looms largest on this list is that of Richie Tenenbaum in Wes Anderson’s third feature, The Royal Tenenbaums. He’s a former pro tennis champion who’s depressed after spending his entire life pining unrequitedly for his adopted sister Margot.

Let’s hear a little bit from Wes Anderson about why Wilson was a good fit for the role (from Matt Zoller Seitz’s “The Wes Anderson Collection”:

“That part was written for Luke, certainly, and there were several things at play. One is that Luke has always had some people who were his followers. When Luke got sent to boarding school, he was saying that no one there liked him, and his father went to visit him, and maybe I won’t remember this exactly right, but the thrust of it is that when his father got there, Luke was just being elected one of the prefects or something. When Mr. Wilson got there, what he saw was that Luke was one of the most popular kids in the school–but Luke just didn’t feel that appreciation I guess. He didn’t want to be there. He was sad there, and he was homesick, and he didn’t want to be there. And that kind of combination, that’s very unusual. He’s a very charismatic person, and he certainly doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve.

Gene does have the showiest character, but Luke’s character is the hero of the movie. Here is the ensemble around him, his family. But he is the center. Not Hackman, but Luke.”

Anderson really gets to the bottom of why I find Wilson so compelling on screen. He’s someone that’s incredibly likable without falling into the leading man trap of arrogance and bravado. He doesn’t have to get your attention because he has a melancholy sense of gravity about him that pulls you in. He speaks softly but that only makes you want to lean in closer to hear what he has to say.

And that brings us to the end of Luke Wilson’s Andersonian journey. Although he was never a co-writer with Anderson like his brother Owen and his collaborations unexpectedly stopped after Wes Anderson’s third film, Luke is a warm, gentle presence in all of his appearances mentioned in this video. By playing characters who are having tough times battling heartache, loneliness, and mental exhaustion, he serves as a beacon of hope to audience members struggling with similar issues.

If you’d like more videos about directors and their melancholy babies, hit that Subscribe button to stay up to date on the Sarris Wheel’s YouTube channel. And, for more Wes Anderson-oriented videos, check out the Sarris Wheel’s playlists. There’s a video on Wes Anderson’s brother, Owen, and a Hitchcock star who got famous writing comforting songs for grieving families during World War One. How many channels can say that? 

Until next time, always remember…the Sarris Wheel spins on.

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