After watching The Royal Tenenbaums
, I felt a great sense of joy. This movie is full of the ups and downs, victories and failures, and happy and sad moments of life. As in all of director Wes Anderson
’s films, it is the hopeful cheeriness that is memorable. Tenenbaums
is a rare gem that sent tingles down my spine
days after viewing. I was overjoyed with the accuracy of Anderson
’s portrayal of how human beings act, rather than Hollywood
’s fraudulent version. This was one of the best films I’ve seen in quite some time.
The film, written by Anderson and actor Owen Wilson, is like a well-staged play. Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum, a street-wise hustler who deserted his wife and three genius children, played by Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, and Gwyneth Paltrow. The children become wealthy and famous after their parents split. This is where the film begins; at thirty years of age, the three are scarred by their father's negligence and decide to move back into the Tenenbaum Estate in New York (although the name of the city is never explicitly stated). So why should the audience care about three snot-nosed rich kids and a selfish old lecher? Anderson’s genius is his ability to make his characters human. Royal Tenenbaum tells his family he is dying of cancer in order to get close enough to make up for his decades of ignorance. Chas (Stiller) is trying obsessively to be the father he never had. Richie (L. Wilson) is tortured with love for his half-sister Margot (Paltrow), who has always felt inadequate due to the love never received from Royal. The three have as many faults as the average person, and we can always see emotion in their faces. I felt connected to each character because they are as imperfect as every person I know.
Dialogue between characters is full of awkward pauses and faux pas, and we can feel the tension between characters. When Richie confronts longtime friend and literary celebrity Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) about his telling Margot about Richie's love for her, Cash says, “I’m sorry, I’m on mescaline.” The tender, caring Richie replies, “Did you say mescaline? pause Do you do that often?” The dialogue reveals much about the characters. While some films supply corny phrases and suave sayings to give characters an edge, Anderson and Wilson use dialogue to sculpt believable characters and allow the viewer to relate to the emotions of the characters.
Despite the characters' flaws, the film isn’t a tearjerker. Although the characters are plagued by sadness and betrayal, all retain optimism and hope that their wounds will heal. Anderson rarely relies on slapstick humor; the film is humorous in that the viewer can relate his own life to those of the characters, step back, and chuckle at the often-absurd behavior of people. Anderson makes it possible to laugh, however, because the characters are caricatures of people we see every day. I could relate to Margot’s need for secrecy, and I laughed because she hid her smoking habit at the age of thirty. I found Eli’s cowboy attire humorous because I know people who role-play to avoid their feelings. Even Chas’ resentment of Royal was funny at times, because Royal, like every other character, doesn’t mope. Anderson is clever enough to balance weighty, emotional scenes with humorous ones. He never dwells on sadness, and this is his greatest achievement in Tenenbaums.
The setting for the film is beautiful. The Tenenbaum Estate has its own personality. Situated on a street corner in upper class New York, the large house has pink and blue walls and enough animal heads to make a taxidermist squeal with delight. At the beginning of the film, we are given a tour of the Estate, and what struck me were the modern furnishings situated amongst antiquated machinery and architecture. This gives the house, and therefore the film, a sense of timelessness. We are never told when the story occurs. The scenery and costume design are infuenced by styles from the last four decades. The story of the dysfunctional family’s struggle to forget the past could happen any time and anywhere.
The soundtrack adds to this timeless quality as well, with a mixture of British invasion bands, eighties music, and nineties singer-songwriters. All of these songs, as well as the instrumentals made for the film, are expertly placed and often say as much as the characters do. In the film’s most poignant moment, Richie’s attempted suicide, Elliot Smith’s melancholy “Needle in the Hay” conveys Richie’s fear and longing. When Royal takes Chas’ twins on an outing in the city, Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” made me feel as if I was having as much fun as the characters. A beautiful instrumental version of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” serves as the film’s opening, and Nick Drake’s “Northern Sky” is the background to one of the happiest moments in the film, Richie’s admission of his love for Margot after his attempted suicide.
The climax is brilliant. All characters are present for the event that will change their attitudes. When Eli takes too much mescaline and runs his car into the Estate, Chas chases him through the house (the cinematography of this scene is gorgeous; the camera expertly follows the comical action of Eli running away from an obsessive Chas). Chas realizes that he is too uptight at the same time Eli realizes he has a drug problem. Margot realizes she no longer loves Eli. Royal realizes he enjoys his family more than anything else. Richie, Margot, and Chas forgive Royal. I was overjoyed that characters to which I was emotionally attached got what they deserved. It was as if I was physically present at this happy yet realistic ending.
While I loved the character development and the costumes, no actor besides Owen Wilson stands out. His writing and acting reveal comic genius. When Richie asks him to confront his habit, Eli replies, “I’m sorry. I just always wanted to be a Tenenbaum.” This touching scene is made hilarious by the following; we see the paranoid Eli look back while he runs to his car to escape his friend. Other actors fail to deliver a high-caliber performance such as Wilson’s. I had enough of Paltrow’s moping and Stiller’s stubbornness early into the film. While the characters are believable, the acting often isn’t. While his countenance shows disappointment and fatigue, Stiller is far too eager to spit out a bitter punch line. Fortunately, the acting didn’t detract too much from this great film.
Unlike most films with big-name ensemble casts, Tenenbaums doesn’t spend inordinate amounts of time on superfluous scenes or allow any actor to hog the screen. While I found Royal’s day in the city unnecessary, Paul Simon’s music made it bearable. With this exception, every scene tells us something about the characters or furthers the plot. Alec Baldwin’s voiceover narrative is enjoyable, and it allows Anderson to develop characters more often than develop plot. I would like to see more of this in big budget films.
I expected nothing less from one of my favorite directors. Wilson’s co-writing makes The Royal Tenenbaums better than any of Anderson’s previous films. It was refreshing to see a film that accurately portrayed the way people deal with one another. At the same time, the film doesn’t force feed any morals; I had to ponder the point of the movie. After watching the film, I felt as if I had read a good play or novel. Tenenbaums made me think and feel, and it had none of the insulting gaudiness of other Hollywood films.