This article is part of the Wes Anderson Blogathon, hosted by me, which runs this week. Here is the previous entry, Mike Ladano’s take on Rushmore.
My favorite of the many charming things about The Royal Tenenbaums, one of my favorite films, is how it doesn’t even realize it’s a movie. It thinks it’s a book. The first image of the film is a strange-looking pink volume, titled The Royal Tenenbaums, being stamped with a date stamp and thrust directly at the viewer by an unseen librarian. It has chapters and frontispieces. It’s structured like an old beloved novel: slow to begin, gradually picking up pace, not afraid to dwell for a few pages on some intricacy of its characters. The understated narration of Alec Baldwin is like a kindly author speaking to us from a page. Tenenbaums is the rarest of films, eschewing the tropes of motion pictures almost entirely, and reveling in pure literary delight. Few filmmakers are willing to take such a chance. Wes Anderson does, and it succeeds brilliantly.
(Mild spoilers) The Royal Tenenbaums is the story of the Tenenbaum family and their fall from grace. In the late 1970s, Royal (Gene Hackman), the patriarch, and his wife Etheline (Angelica Huston) raise three talented children: Richie, a tennis star (played as an adult by Luke Wilson); Chas (Ben Stiller), who turns out to be gifted at business and finance; and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), who becomes a playwright at an early age. By the early 2000s, however, Royal and Etheline are separated and all three children’s adult lives have sputtered into failure and disarray. In a desperate bid to reconnect with the family he never cared much about, Royal pretends he is dying of cancer and the three children, plus him, reunite under the same roof. But now things are different. In addition to dealing with their own issues, Etheline is about to get married to her accountant (Danny Glover); Chas and his sons are reeling from the death of Chas’s wife; and Margot, despite being married to a neurologist (Bill Murray) is torn between secret love for her step-brother Richie and her childhood friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). It all makes for a very awkward mix as the family tries to come to terms with their own downfall.
Everything about Tenenbaums hums, from crackly, kinetic dialogue to fiercely restrained but still passionate performances, especially from Hackman, Huston and Glover. Hackman is deliciously bad as the callous, arrogant Royal, who despite his selfishness really does care about his children, if he can only bring himself to recognize it. Huston plays the long-suffering Etheline with a kind of stoicism that one recognizes immediately as a shield built up over years of hard knocks in raising headstrong but needy children, and she balances her no-nonsense view of the world with an appropriately quiet dose of motherly affection. Glover as Etheline’s accountant and second husband Henry Sherman takes on a lot of the more straight comic elements, but he plays the role with such dignity that he complements the cast perfectly. Really the only weak performances are Paltrow, who’s a little too one-note as Margot, and Stiller, whose attempts to find real emotion at the depth of his high-strung character come off as a little maudlin. Still, as an ensemble the cast works very well together and off each other.
This is clearly a story driven by characters, and Tenenbaums isn’t afraid to let its characters act like characters in a book–not stock movie types. This is probably its greatest strength, but also probably why some critics initially didn’t like it. The film presumes the Tenenbaums are complex, driven by a lot of conflicting motivations, and it doesn’t presume to tell us everything there is to know about them. Chas’s story seems especially murky, and while the tendency is to dismiss his behavior as Royal does–“I think you’re having a nervous breakdown!”–it turns out there’s much more behind it than that. Chas is at once afraid of death but at the same time afraid of life, as he seeks to seal himself and his sons into a bubble that no one else can reach. Richie’s famous on-screen suicide attempt, slashing his wrists as Elliot Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” plays on the soundtrack, is triggered by a lot more than the unsettling things he’s learned about Margot’s love life. Indeed it seems a culmination of everything, the catharsis of the whole family that Richie, in a misguided way, suddenly feels responsible for executing.
This scene from early in The Royal Tenenbaums shows both the film’s literary pretensions and director Wes Anderson’s quirky style.
I also love that most of the characters in Tenenbaums are portrayed as book authors. While we’re getting to know various characters, the movie often freeze-frames on the covers of books they are supposed to have written. Eli is the author of Old Custer, a Western alternative history novel; Etheline has written Family of Geniuses; Margo has several volumes such as Four Plays, which evidently includes a play called Nakedness Tonight; even Henry has written a book called Accounting for Everything. You rarely see a character in a movie who is identified as an author unless that status is somehow important to the plot. Here, it’s a detail–it’s just who these people are. They live in a world of books. The film cheerfully assumes that the audience does too.
I can’t leave the subject of Tenenbaums without a nod to the soundtrack, which is almost as famous as the film itself. From Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” to the wonderfully kinetic cover of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” that opens the film–and melds seamlessly with Alec Baldwin’s eloquent narration–the music is another character in the movie, and it’s masterfully chosen. It’s a lot of quirky indie stuff from across four different decades, but even to me, a metal fan, it really enhances the experience.
This is not from The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s the official video for “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” by Paul Simon, one of the songs used to great effect in the film.
The Royal Tenenbaums is a triumph all the way around. It remains my first and my favorite Wes Anderson film. I never get tired of it. It’s one of those things that you meet in life and becomes a constant companion, always there to put you in the same cheerful mood whenever you encounter it, however many years it’s been since the first time. Funny: a good book does exactly the same thing.