The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar ★★★★

I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand what all of Wes Anderson’s many hallmark stylings add up to, but my theory after watching “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” is that he’s one of those kids that never left—or wanted to leave—his high school drama department. More than any other Anderson film, this one is practically transparent about how hard he works to recreate that particular camaraderie of a troupe of would-be thespians and theater techs laboring to put on a show. 

It’s a feeling of suspended disbelief, of trying to create a transportive dramatic fiction, but it’s also a feeling of everyone in the production being in on it together, the “stars” pitching in as much as the crew to keep the wheels turning. It’s a sense of yes, we’re trying our very best here and taking it all very seriously, but we’re also all going out for pizza together after rehearsals tonight when everyone is just a person again. The uniquely Andersonian twist is that while he seems to prize highly that feeling of industrial fraternity, he does so not in an exclusive fashion. He also clearly wants us, as the audience, to feel conspiratorially connected to what’s on the screen, to see the performances not as attempts to capture “real people” but rather as acts of translating the written word into performance—translations meant for us, as observers. In this way we’re playing a role too; by watching the proceedings, by chuckling politely and forgiving the charming awkwardness of stage hands facilitating costume changes and shifting backdrops all while on screen, we’re completing the circuit, providing the production with its raison d’être. 

Of course this is all made so much clearer with these Dahl adaptations because he’s literally using the author’s prose for the majority of the scripts. On the one hand, this approach provides “Sugar” with a tremendous head start, a backbone of rich, eloquent spoken texture that’s a pleasure in and of itself, not to mention a perfect excuse to employ yet more nested narrative framing devices. But it also allows Anderson to concentrate on establishing that air of oneness between the cast, crew and audience to remarkable effect, to hone it with great clarity, maybe even reaching a career peak. This might be the most Wes Anderson of all Wes Anderson joints.

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