The Royal Tenenbaums is a Weird, Wonderful Wes Anderson Great

Posted on | December 24, 2015 | Add Comments

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)The Royal Tenenbaums is perhaps Wes Anderson’s most personal, stylized, distinct film. In comparison to his other films, its even more outlandish than Rushmore, though it doesn’t have the fantastical qualities of The Life Aquatic. Sprawling, frantic, and multi-layered, the movie is an ensemble Hollywood comedy and a formally dazzling art piece. Above all, it is a peculiar, charming, tragic, funny, and beautiful look at the myriad complications of family.

The movie opens with an extended prologue that sets up the dysfunctional family of the title. There are three Tenenbaum kids, all child prodigies: playwright Margot, tennis star Richie, and finance whiz Chas. After astonishing success and great promise, “All memory of the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums [is] erased by two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster.” So goes the narration of Alec Baldwin, which gives a warm, storybook undercurrent to the movie’s proceedings. Years after their childhood greatness, the siblings’ lives are in various states of disarray. Margot is stuck in a bored marriage with neurologist Raleigh St. Clair and hasn’t written a play in years. Richie retired from tennis after a meltdown at his career peak and now travels the world by boat. And Chas is a paranoid but loving helicopter father raising his two boys after their mother’s death in a helicopter accident. The trio’s mother, Etheline, is contemplating a proposal from her colleague Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). And Royal, their father and her ex, has suddenly announced he’s dying of cancer. His sickness brings the family, ever so reluctantly, back under the same roof (specifically the magnificent family home) for the first time in years.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)Royal, played by a sly yet soulful Gene Hackman, is the devious force that puts the film’s plot into action. He truthfully wants to reconnect with and rekindle the love of his family, but he is also broke, scheming, and motivated by his own interests. This film is populated by a huge, fascinating cast of characters, all vying for our love and attention like the needy, looking-for-love people they are. The cast is quite the star-studded line-up, but these are remarkably unusual performances. At first, the actors seem to be doing one-note caricatures. And, initially, that’s the point. Slowly, these wounded souls reveal their inner hurt. We know characters like the almost silent, solemn ex-tennis star Richie (a terrific Luke Wilson) are struggling with something, but we don’t what. When his pain is revealed, it’s staggeringly affecting.

There are so many characters with such disparate personalities, along with multiple converging story lines, that the film rarely has time to breathe. Every sixty seconds, it flips to a new exciting revelation or montage or conflict. Anderson always stuffs his films with eclectic soundtrack choices, jarring tonal shifts, show-topping displays of filmmaking talent, and thoughtful, surprising casting choices. He piles on the style heavy, but underneath there is always a wounded, beating heart. That very dichotomy – between look-at-me style and deeply moving substance – can work against the film but also makes it great.

At times, Anderson’s critics’ complaint that his films are mere doll-house visual playgrounds with knee-deep characters and flat stories begins to ring true. The Royal Tenenbaums can sometimes feel a little hollow, a little empty. Its flaws are hard to describe, but there are no doubt times when Anderson is working against himself, when his beautiful script and marvelous production are at conflicting odds.

Miraculously, all the parts of Tenenbaums fuse together successfully most of the time, and the result is stunning. Anderson is a terrifically confident director, as skilled at constructing a glorious set as developing a supporting character. Along with cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, he likes to create frames bustling with action but also carefully focused on a character placed in the center. The movie’s production values are a step above Rushmore‘s, and Anderson makes use of it. Each scene is oh so carefully lit, shot, edited, and placed to a song.

This is a quirky, outlandish, often very funny film, with sharp dialogue that never loses its wit or charm. Underneath all that, the movie contains some highly dark themes. The shadow of death looms over and cuts through it all. Royal’s cancer gives him six weeks to live, and his impending death actually unites the family. Lethal sickness, along with a grieving widower and an attempted suicide give the film a haunting, deeply moving, and surprisingly realistic chill. As critic Mat Zoller Seitz pointed out, the divorce of Royal and Etheline, when the kids were at their prodigious peak, is the spark that lights the film’s out-of-control flame. Above all, this is a movie about a family: a big, highly dysfunctional but ultimately loving one. The movie doesn’t make grand attempts to uncover the complicated meaning of family, but by following the story of one it sort of does. Anderson portrays some pretty bizarre sibling relationships, a well-meaning father’s sly scheming, and the loving mother who cares for them all with equal care. Ultimately, the movie’s lasting message is a classic one: We will fight and grow apart and move away and fall in and out of love, but the bond of family is unbreakable.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)From the start, it’s clear The Royal Tenenbaums is a singular, special, very weird film. At times, it seems like it will suffocate under its own idiosyncratic flair. This is a wobbling tower of directorial showmanship, putting layer upon layer of artsy, immaculate craft on top of its scarred, still-hanging-on soul. And still that soul, that emotion, that heart.  There is grieving, broken friendship, a sibling affair, old (and new) love, and the splintered relationship between a father and his children. Tenenbaums doesn’t always work; Anderson is gunning for his masterpiece but doesn’t quite succeed (Rushmore and Fantastic Mr. Fox are, in their own ways, as great). Yet this is still a terrific film, a classic of 21st century moviemaking, and a timeless piece of art.


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