“How interesting. How bizarre!”
Nothing Wes Anderson does will ever match the brilliance of his third film, The Royal Tenenbaums. A lot of this has to do with when I first saw it back in the winter of 2002, but I say it objectively too. I was still in college, still in the midst of my cinematic education after an adolescence full of mainstream Hollywood, and just starting to realize the potential of my local independent theaters’ reach. I don’t remember why I even went to see it considering I hadn’t known of Bottle Rocket or Rushmore before. Maybe it was the insanely sprawling cast, a review in Buffalo’s alt-paper, or the promise of a kick-ass soundtrack. Whatever the reason, I was blown away by what this auteur did with comedy, aesthetic, and character.
Here I am over a decade later saying the same thing. A few sequences look as though they were shot with a different camera, some transitions are abrupt, and there’s a definite sense of Anderson exploring the capabilities of panning the camera and blocking actors, but no hiccup ever overshadows the effectiveness of the attempt or its success. He wears his quirk on his sleeve by turning this tale of a dysfunctional upper-crust family into a storybook saga read through a narrator (Alec Baldwin) with title cards mimicking the opening page of each chapter complete with a few sentences soon to come to life. It’s Mother Goose for adults chock full of lessons about ego, failure, and most of all humility.
This is a family of prodigies: a king of business acumen (Ben Stiller‘s Chas), an intellectual playwright with the depressiveness of the greats (Gwyneth Paltrow‘s adopted daughter Margot), and a champion athlete (Luke Wilson‘s tennis champion Richie). Raised by their academic mother (Anjelica Huston‘s Etheline), their genius was the stuff of local legend and the fodder for Icarus-level descent thanks in part to father Royal’s (Gene Hackman) selfish manipulations. A user of the highest order, the absent patriarch ensured they’d become jaded, untrustworthy, and ultimately damaged goods. Now, two-decades after he moved out and into a luxury hotel he can no longer afford, it’s time to worm his way back in (and make amends).
Anderson introduces us to this expository history lesson with a cynical whimsy, utilizing his now trademarked visual style and unparalleled level of detail. The language rhythms are theatrically broad and the characterizations cutesy on the surface with an edge of loathing and regret not far below. He shows everyone’s accomplishments and implosions with identical deadpan comedic flair, simultaneously painting his archetypes with authenticity and hyperbole. Rushmore may have gone above and beyond as far as jamming each frame with as much relevant (and irrelevant) set dressing as possible, but The Royal Tenenbaums was truly the work that cemented his uncanny ability to create life-size doll houses on modest budgets and without unnecessary outside intervention from financiers.
No one involved is a throwaway—straight down to Lindbergh Palace Hotel elevator operator Dusty (Seymour Cassel) doubling as Royal’s sham of a doctor and family servant Pagoda (Kumar Pallana) working as Mr. Tenenbaum’s mole on the inside. After all, both prove crucial to a plot that hinges heavily on Royal pretending to be on his deathbed so all the bile everyone else holds for him can disappear into a week of blissful union. And while his reason to go through this charade was initially to sabotage Etheline’s relationship with accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), a heart and soul eventually form when it appears too late. So he must play to his manipulative strengths by pitting brother against brother, throwing innocents onto the sword, and realizing he isn’t the only one staring a dismal existence in the face.
I say this because our reintroduction to the children after sifting through their accolade-heavy youths shows them lost and in crisis too. Chas is newly widowed and impossibly paranoid about safety to the extent that he holds nightly fire drills for his two young sons. Margot is as secretive and laconic as ever, trapping herself in the bathroom for hours away from husband Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray). And Richie is secluded on a ship out to sea—a sort of spirit journey of serenity to cope with the love he has for his adopted sister. Throw in childhood friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) riding a whirlwind of over-exaggerated praise and Etheline reconciling her need to get a divorce and start her new life with Henry and you have an ample supply of circumstances ripe for laughter.
Anderson expertly weaves everything together in a complex tapestry of nuance and dry humor that keeps us engaged throughout both the nonsense and human truths on display. Hackman provides the perfect example of a morally bankrupt creature leeching his way through life until discovering what he’s missed, Glover gives us an adversary who’s everything he is not, and the kids project anger (Chas), ambivalence (Margot), and hope (Richie) upon their father to reveal the disparate relationships they had with him. Nothing is merely included for a laugh—although so many details seem custom built to do so—because the connective tissue between everything is taut and precisely mapped out. Every character has multiple purposes and they wholly fulfill each without fail.
Included are conflicts of the mundane made hilarious (a father telling his child the play she wrote and produced was merely serviceable on her birthday before the cake even arrived) and weightier issues like suicide handled with a deft eye and ear for emotional resonance and the restraint to ensure the horror of such an act isn’t belittled and transformed into a joke. Because while the true intent of the film is so make his audience laugh as they see themselves onscreen with this caricatured family furnishing their mirror, Anderson never takes the responsibility of creating three-dimensional characters with real evolutionary paths and hard decisions lightly. In effect, he uses cliché in order to mock it, giving us exactly what we expect in the most unexpected way.