Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover, Bill Murray, Seymour Cassel, Kumar Pallana
MPAA Rating: (for some language, sexuality/nudity and drug content)
Running Time: 1:48
Release Date: 12/14/01
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Review by Mark Dujsik
If Bottle Rocket was a stylish name-maker for director Wes Anderson and Rushmore was a complete proof of his talents, then The Royal Tenenbaums simply reinforces Anderson’s role as a cutting-edge young director. With Tenenbaums, Anderson maintains his usual detached perspective but manages to pull off something special. He actually creates this family and their world, as unbelievable and imperfect as it is. And then, he actually makes us care for them—immensely care for them—as unbelievable and imperfect as they are. If the dysfunctional family is a distinctly American pop-culture cornerstone, Anderson has created a small opus of the American family. We may not be watching ourselves, but we surely can relate to them. We may not be as dysfunctional as they are, but their lives magnify the lives we grew up with—grow up with still. To call it insightful is to just barely scratch the surface, and to call it complex is to simply get a little closer.
The film opens with a nicely conceived character introduction. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) was never the attentive father. He and his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) separated (never divorced), and he never came close to understanding his children, all deemed child geniuses. Chas (Ben Stiller) had an eye for business early and even developed and began selling Dalmatian mice. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is their adopted daughter, and Royal makes sure everyone knows it. She began writing plays at an early age. Richie (Luke Wilson) became a prodigy of tennis early on. Many years down the line, Chas’ wife has died in a plane crash, leaving him with two sons and a dog. Margot is miserably married to an older man Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray). Richie is famous for losing a big game. Etheline is considering marriage to her accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). And Royal has lost his law practice a few years back and is now being evicted from the hotel room he’s made his home. With everything going like this, it can only be time for a family reunion and an announcement from Royal: He’s dying.
If I seem to have sketched out the characters too much, I didn’t. This is really only a rough outline of their major characteristics and the impetus that gets the story going. The film is quite succinct in its development of characters. Anderson is primarily a visual storyteller, so we get many small details throughout the film building more and more information about them. Note particularly the first scene of adult Chas, who makes his sons practice fire alarms late at night. This single sequence tells everything we need to know about Chas’ character at this point in his life—his fear of losing more of those he loves and a complete paranoia about safety. Anderson is a director of unique picturization and composition. He uses every bit of space in his shots. That he fills the background of his scenes with in-jokes or more information simply adds to the depth of his film.
Adding much to the storytelling is the screenplay by Anderson and Owen Wilson (who also appears in the film as a friend of the Tenenbaums) which uses minimal dialogue in exchanges between characters and a storybook outline for the events. A whole scene can be summed up with one utterance of disgust or a new detail. Even the more drawn out scenes have a strange quality of dialogue. There’s a scene when Royal tells his (ex-)wife that he is dying. The two are talking on the street—they take up the right half of the frame, a tree the other—and she begins crying. He tells her that he isn’t dying, which is either to settle her down or perhaps hinting at something else, and she hits him a few times and walks off screen while the camera stays on him. He calls her back and assures her, yes, he is dying. The scene is particularly notable for its unusual composition, frank dialogue, and another even more important element: the tone.
If the feeling of Tenenbaums could be summed up in one word, it would be bittersweet. That scene I mentioned above is a perfect example of this quality. The film touches upon many difficult psychological and emotional problems but still manages to understand that its characters are aware of their dysfunctions. Royal comes to understand that he’s been an awful husband and father early on in the film, and the driving force of the story is his desire to set things right. Chas has difficulty expressing himself, but there’s an incredibly touching moment near the end of the film when he comes close. Margot is well aware of her problems and is given even more to deal with because of a revelation from Richie. Anderson has a sublime choice when it comes to scoring his films with counterculture pop songs, and his musical taste adds immensely to the Tenenbaums’ problems. From the prologue featuring the Beatles’ "Hey Jude" to a flashback of Margot’s sexual past with the Ramones in the background, the soundtrack accompanying the images is at times perfectly suiting and at others perfectly antithetical.
Putting the whole thing together is a superb ensemble cast, possibly the best this year. Everyone finds the right notes for the over-the-top characters, but it’s Hackman’s (completing a pretty busy year in film) Royal, both the character and the performance, that quickly gives the film its heart. Bursting at the seams with joy and glee, Hackman proves the ultimate antithesis in a movie whose characters are mostly wearing angst on their sleeves. Perhaps the most complicated aspect of the film is that to heal their collective wounds, a family must grab on to the desperate lust for life of the man who caused them the most pain. If that is the case, and I think it may be, the film turns out to be an allegory of forgiveness. Of course, another aspect of Anderson’s films is the way that you pick something new up after each viewing, and I am sure he proves this again with The Royal Tenenbaums.
Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.