The Royal Tenenbaums

In his first three films — Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and now The Royal Tenenbaums — Wes Anderson has created a distinct and consistent world. The lackadaisical suburban thieves of Bottle Rocket might’ve gone to Rushmore Academy as kids, and Max Fischer as a pre-pubescent playwright might’ve put his work in competition with the equally precocious Margot Tenenbaum’s plays. There’s a buzz of strangeness about Anderson’s world; in its way, it’s as alien to us — and as precisely rendered — as the Middle-earth of The Fellowship of the Ring. This world has its own look and sound, with morosely defiant oldies on the soundtrack underlining the characters’ malaise or passion.

Anderson loves overachievers and underachievers — particularly people who manage to be both at once — and he’s got three of them here: the aforementioned Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), the adopted daughter of the clan, who peaked early as a playwright and now sulks in her tub for hours; Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller), a prodigious financial whiz overprotective of his two sons since the death of his wife; and Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson), a former tennis champ who had a meltdown on the court and thinks he’s in love with Margot, but that’s okay, since “we’re not related by blood.” Slippery ethics, but since patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) took every opportunity to remind everyone of Margot’s adopted status when introducing her, who can blame Richie?

Royal, the sort of affable bastard right up Hackman’s alley, has been estranged from his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) and children for years; one day he slinks back into the picture with the news that he’s dying. Giving himself six weeks to put things right between himself and his kids, Royal sets up a hospital room in his former house, followed in rapid succession by Chas, Richie, and Margot, who all move back into their old bedrooms, confronted daily with the surroundings of their childhood greatness. Hanging around for good measure is Richie’s friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson, who for the third time cowrote the script with Anderson), who “always wanted to be a Tenenbaum” but has settled for being a drug-addled novelist; he zones out during a TV interview, and he defends the failure of his first book with the standard artist’s line that it was too archaic for most people to understand.

Tenenbaums unfolds like a storybook tale, but this is Anderson’s most loosely plotted endeavor yet. Like Rushmore, it’s not so much about its story as about the moods and moments the story makes possible. Here, for instance, is Margot’s rumpled neurologist husband Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray, swathed in a foam of beard) tapping sadly on a window to get her attention. Or family financial advisor Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) moving in tentatively to kiss Etheline, while she grins girlishly in anticipation, unearthing old feelings of desire and being desired just as she’d unearthed a human skeleton a few minutes before. Or a confrontation between Chas and Royal in a closet, surrounded by shelves weighed down with ancient board games, underlining the childishness of both men. Or the way all printed material we see in the movie is in the same blocky all-caps Futura font used for the title on the poster art, even the “walk/don’t walk” signs and the logos on hospital gowns — in this universe text is purely utilitarian, and the book covers we see are usually good for a laugh. Or the predictably eclectic soundtrack, wherein the Velvet Underground and the Ramones rub elbows with Mark Mothersbaugh’s otherworldly bells and organs and the beautifully apt use of “Christmas Time Is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas (I have to love a director so obsessed with Peanuts that he made Max Fischer’s dad a barber, just like Charlie Brown’s dad). Or Robert Yeoman’s pristine, rigidly symmetrical widescreen compositions, which give the characters ample space to mope in solitude — vast dead air on either side of them, and vertically squashed; the horizontal proscenium of the movie becomes an oppressive character in itself.

Sound like a downer? Not really — or not if you’re attuned to Anderson’s method of keeping heartbreak at a slight remove. For him, the small moment takes care of the large emotions, and we project the rest. Ben Stiller gives a rather antagonistic performance with the tiniest bits of shading (his reading of a key line near the end brings his character nicely into focus); Gwyneth Paltrow stares at everything as if from beyond the grave, a blonde goth princess who never looks so pained as when she can’t help smiling at something. The movie doesn’t overflow with false personality; character is in the design, like the lonely-looking yellow tent in the middle of a vast room. Richie sleeps in the tent, listening to the Rolling Stones on the same breed of chunky gray record player we all remember from grade school. Now and then a “dalmatian mouse” — Chas’s invention — scampers into the frame, as if blotted with memories, or symbolic of memories blotted out. Why, we might ask, did Royal emphasize Margot’s adopted status at every opportunity? Why was he ejected from his home (the movie never says)? Is Richie’s affection for Margot a case of like-father-like-son? Underneath the film’s ornate but terse facade might be a churning tangle of backstories barely hinted at.

Gene Hackman presides over all this like a dissipated King Lear, only he doesn’t demand expressions of love from his three children; he’ll make do with expressions of non-hatred. The Royal Tenenbaums extends or plays with themes explored in Rushmore: in both, a father looks quizzically at offspring he can’t imagine he could have sired, and a protagonist is an immature liar and often dislikable, but somehow, despite himself, lovable. Tenenbaums can also be considered a loose sequel to Rushmore, in that the three past-their-prime wunderkinder could be Max Fischer fifteen years on.

If you didn’t float happily in the world of Rushmore, this movie’s mix of quirky humor and deadpan anguish won’t do it for you (I noted a number of walkouts at the screening I attended). Anderson specializes in gentle bipolar comedy-tragedies: Tenenbaums may be the most depressive movie ever to be painted in shades of red, yellow, and pink. 5

Explore posts in the same categories: comedy, drama, murray christmas, one of the year's best, wes anderson

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