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The misanthropic father of an eccentric family tries to re-connect with his wife and children by faking a terminal illness.
Having written and directed two comedy classics by the close of the twentieth century, it must have been daunting for Wes Anderson to engineer a story that could match his previous successes, 1996’s “Bottle Rocket” and 1998’s “Rushmore”. However, it is my stern opinion that his first project for the next millenium, “The Royal Tenenbaums”, is in fact his cinematic masterpiece . . . so far.
The overall feel of the film is classic Wes Anderson. The sets are intimately cluttered with elaborate prop detail and surrealistic design. The performances are somewhat subdued, yet somehow hysterical. The storyline focuses on the obliteration and reconstruction of fractured familial relations. And, of course, there is that final shot when everyone moves in slow motion to a song that you will inevitably buy from iTunes.
But this movie differs from his earlier work in that the characters are personified with even greater dramatic appeal. Where “Bottle Rocket” was rampant with comedic buffoonery, the Tenenbaums create laughter with their remarkable imperfections. Where “Rushmore” made you remember your first broken heart, “The Royal Tenenbaums” takes on matters of social destruction, such as divorce and suicide. The Tenenbaums not only suffer from their hurt feelings, they bleed from them.
The film begins with roller-coaster speed as Alec Baldwin rapidly narrates the family history to a muzak version of “Hey Jude”. As book covers and flashbacks dominate the screen, first-timers may become disoriented and irritated as they keep hitting the rewind button. My advice is this: Don’t hesitate the action. Just let the information blow right through you. If you think you missed something funny, you are probably right. The jokes are that fast. But catch it another time. It is the kind of humor that is funnier on repeated viewings.
According to Anderson, this introduction is based on Orson Welles’ second feature, “The Magnificent Ambersons”, which he himself narrated. Like the Ambersons, the Tenenbaums are a dysfunctional mess of denial and failure. Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum, the disgraced and estranged patriarch of a tormented family. After leaving his wife and three children in an undisclosed settlement, he is forced into residing at a luxuriuos hotel on credit for twenty-two years. As Etheline, who was influenced after Anderson’s own mother, Anjelica Huston takes command of her children’s education and creates geniuses out of all three of them.
Chas (Ben Stiller) is a mathematical and scientific business prodigy with “an almost preternatural understanding of international finance”. Adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a playwright and literary enthusiast. She is also widely known for her secrecy, a delightfully subtle contradiction. Both bear strong resentment toward their father: Margot, because he constantly references her alienation from being a blood relative; and Chas, because Royal shot him in the hand with an air rifle. He also stole bonds out of Chas’ safety deposit box when he was fourteen.
The youngest, Richie (Luke Wilson), is undoubtely Royal’s favorite. Try imagining Max Fischer from “Bottle Rocket” if he was born from money. Interested in all manner of subjects from artistic portraiture to falconing, Richie discovered his professional destiny as a champion tennis player by the third grade.
Richie’s best friend, Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), is the wannabe Tenenbaum, spending time with the family at every available moment. Patterned somewhere between Cormac McCarthy and Jay McInerney, he grows up to become a successful but misinformed historical novelist.
“Everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn,” Eli informs a P.R. rep. “What this book presupposes is . . . maybe he didn’t.” Owen Wilson, who co-wrote the movie with Anderson, delivers the line with a question mark on his face that represents his clueless yet confident nature.
All of this information (and I have barely even scraped the surface) is presented within the first ten minutes. The writing, which earned the Anderson/Wilson team an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, explores comedic avenues at dizzying speeds. While the introduction details the family’s history glistening with success and fame, the rest of the movie focuses on the downward spiral of their failures and weaknesses.
Etheline considers the courtship of her aloof and lovestruck accountant, Henry Sherman (played with great warmth by Danny Glover). This development incurs instant jealousy in Royal, who has been spying on her, presumably for years. His solution is to fake Cancer in hopes that he can win back his wife’s hand in marriage and sympathy from his children.
Chas has problems of his own. After losing his wife in a plane crash, he maintains paranoid protection over his two children, Uzi and Ari. At first screening, one might wonder why the three of them are constantly wearing bright red jumpsuits. After witnessing Chas’ over-the-top role of guardian, it becomes clear the costume choice is based on safety regulations.
Margot is quietly unhappy in a dispassionate marriage with Dr. Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), a renowned neurolgist based on Dr. Oliver Sacks of “Awakenings” fame. Throughout the movie, Raleigh is accompanied by his test patient, Dudley. There is a terrific moment when Raleigh reports softly into his tape recorder that Dudley suffers from “amnesia, dyslexia, and color blindness, with a highly acute sense of hearing.”
“I’m not color blind, am I?” Dudley asks from across the next room, while misspelling “sassafras” on a chalkboard.
Yes, it is subtle. Yes, it is a stretch. And yes, I laugh out loud every time I see it. Dudley’s lack of observation is exemplary of every character in the story. Everyone here harbors an existing flaw as well as the relentless neglect to recognize it.
In filming “The Royal Tenenbaums”, Anderson dutifully takes on the role of auteur. In addition to declaring his artistic vision to the art department (an overwhelming task considering the feature consists of over three hundred sets), the director is intricate in the costume specifications, editing process, arrangement of background paintings, etc. He even helps wrangle the Dalmation mice Chas sells to Little Tokyo.
By picking exotic locations in New York City and setting up extraordinary interior designs, Anderson intends to give his story a fabled atmosphere. When Royal’s inside man Pagoda (Anderson’s omnipresent actor, Kumar Pallana) informs him of Etheline’s new romantic interest, Anderson placed Pallana in a spot blocking the Statue of Liberty in the background. Hackman, putting his veteran experience as an actor in front of his respect for his director, strongly disagreed with the decision. But Anderson maintained that he wanted to distance his settings from recognizable New York.
Fans of Andersons will be pleased to hear and see that the director has not lost his talent for setting brilliant musical pieces to film. But in “The Royal Tenenbaums”, he has dramatically matured. Instead of incorporating music for comedic use, songs by John Lennon and The Rolling Stones are presented with heart-breaking sentiment. If you can watch what happens onscreen while Elliott Smith croons “Needle in the Hay” without spilling a tear, then you are made of harder material than Royal Tenenbaum himself.
An additional note of trivia to the loyal fan. The shot where you see the BB pellet lodged between Chas’ knuckles? The hand actually belongs to Andrew Wilson (Future Man from “Bottle Rocket”), who was in fact shot by younger brother Owen in a similar situation.