The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

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Director: Wes Anderson

Producers: Wes Anderson, Barry Mendel, Scott Rudin (American Empirical, Touchstone)

Writers: Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson (screenplay)

Photography: Robert D. Yeoman

Music: Mark Mothersbaugh

Cast: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover, Bill Murray, Alec Baldwin, Seymour Cassel, Kumor Pallana

In 1994, two students at the University of Texas at Austin got together and wrote a script. The students? Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson. The film? Bottle Rocket, a 13-minute comedy short, starring first-time actors Wilson (Wedding Crashers) and his younger brother Luke (Old School). The young filmmakers sent the film to a family friend, screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, who forwarded it to producer Polly Platt, who forwarded it to James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment), who offered them $5 million to turn it into a feature film.

It was released by Columbia Pictures in 1996, recasting the Wilson brothers and scoring a casting coup with James Caan. Though a film with “rookie” written all over it, Bottle Rocket was their foot in the door, a foot we all owe a great deal, because it opened the door to these guys’ next two films, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, two masterpieces of modern cinema. The quirky dramedies are both directed by Anderson, written by Anderson and Wilson, produced by Barry Mendel for American Empirical and Touchstone, with music by Mark Mothersbaugh, photography by Robert D. Yeoman and performances by several repeat cast members, most notably Bill Murray.

Released the same year Max Fischer would have graduated from Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums is a post-modern look at the modern disfunctional family, featuring a star ensemble cast introduced in montage at the outset of the film. It all centers around the patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), a disbarred lawyer who’s seen jailtime and for years been estranged from his archaeologist wife Ethel (Anjelica Huston). There was a time when the family was flying high, touted for its three child prodigies — Chas (Ben Stiller), a kid with “preternatural understanding of international finance”; Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), adopted by the Tenenbaums at age two and grant-winning playwright by the ninth grade; and Richie (Luke Wilson), a champion tennis player since the third grade who turned pro at age 17.

But since those glory years, each has gone on to live their own personal crisis. For Chas, it’s having to raise two kids after his wife’s death in a plane crash. For Margot, the scars of neglect have led to habitual smoking and cheating on her psychiatrist husband, Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), with cowboy author and drug addict Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). And for Richie, it’s humiliation from choking in a major tennis match and depression over having always loved his adopted sister, slightly less freaky because they’re not blood relatives…slightly.

Yes, these children are the products of Royal Tenenbaum, a miserable racist, homophobic, self-important man. Yet after all this, Royal has begun to realize the error of his ways and seek forgiveness from his family, particularly from Ethel, whom he’s never stopped loving. Desperate, he lies and tells them he has cancer, setting up a phony ultimatum of six weeks for them to reconcile with him. One by one, the Tenenbaum offspring move back into their five-story, childhood home in New York, as does Royal, securing a “hospital bed” on the top floor, where he perpetuates his lie with the help of a hitman-turned-friend named Pagoda (Kumar Pallana).

As Royal tries wooing back Ethel, he draws suspicions from Ethel’s business partner Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), who’s asked her to marry him. What’s more, the offspring are reluctant to make ammends with their father, whose return has added another layer to their individual crises. Blood is shed, relationships shattered, lives rearranged, but in the end, Royal finds his peace.

The script, wild and complicated as it is, earned an Oscar nomination for co-writers Anderson and Wilson, who got their title from college friend Brian Tenenbaum and an obvious word play on the “Royal Tananbaums.” As for their story, they seem to have based the Tenenbaums on J.D. Salinger’s Glass Family, found in several of his novles, including Franny and Zooey (1961). And while no direct mention of Salinger is made, Anderson and Wilson stick to the idea of literary inspiration, presenting their story as if based based off the non-existent book The Royal Tenenbaums, which chronicles the Tenenbaum family in a series of chapters, including narration from the book’s “reader,” a wonderfully deadpan Alec Baldwin. According to Mitchell Hurwitz, creator of the TV show Arrested Development (2003), he also had a similar idea for his TV show, but saw Tenenbaums and thought, “Well, that’s it, I can’t do that anymore.” (B) As good a show as Arrested Development was, it seems Wes and Owen had beaten Hurrowitz to the punch, and the show’s cult following may owe to at least some credit to the stylized primer that was The Royal Tenenbaums.

What a beacon of creativity the script is! Not only does it juggle countless intertwined character studies, each with its own bizarre look at emotional detachment, but it does so in a way that cleverly unravels the plot. For instance, we’re allowed to nibble on the fact that Richie has had a tennis meltdown, and that he loves Margot. But only slowly do we learn how both are related. One by one, the details come together as an attempt to tackle the most honorable of questions: “Can’t somebody be a shit their whole life and try to repair the damage?” “I think people want to hear that,” Royal says, and he’s right. We like redemption in our movies, and Tenenbaums is one of the most unique approaches to a story of redemption. What other movie could pull off its main character’s moment of redemption with Danny Glover turning to him and saying, “I never thought you were an asshole, Royal. I always figured you were more of a sonuvabitch.”

Dry humor is where it’s at, with dialogue flying in the face of expectation. Case in point, Bill Murray has just witnessed a jarring montage of Margot’s infidelity, and all he can say is, “She smokes.” Later, after another huge event, Owen Wilson could say a million things, but instead says, “Where’s my shoe?” These juicy little nuggets may be overlooked by the first-time viewer, but upon closer consideration ring as comic gold. Of course, the script is not without its flaws. Some of the events, like Pagoda’s pocket knife plunge, seem a little too out of nowhere. And critic Karen Krizanovich criticized the film for its “two-dimensional characters who amount to little more than collections of odd habits and extraordinary talents.” (A) While this may be true, I find the film overall brilliant in its eccentricities. In fact, these “wtf” moments sum up the film — Luke Wilson holding a camera up to his eye, but not taking the photo until he’s already dropped his hands; Owen Wilson emerging from a clothes closet; Henry’s tie sticking to his glasses as he reads hospital forms; or people popping out when leas expected, from behind a tree or into a window. These touches are hard to attribute exclusively to script or direction, but either way we know Anderson is behind it.

The Royal Tenenbaums is a film with its director’s mark all over it, earning Anderson a Golden Bear nomination at the Berlin Film Festival. Just look at the song selection, where different instruments are assigned to each of the characters, i.e. harps for Margot. Or the ecclectic nature of the rest of the soundtrack, a mix of Velvet Underground, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, The Rolling Stones and the Peanuts theme “Christmastime is Here” (one of many Anderson references to Snoopy). Most memorably, the choice of Elliot Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” makes the entire shaving scene what it is. And when Richie’s pet bird Mordacai takes off in flight to the tune of “Hey Jude,” it may be the most blissful end to a prologue I’ve ever seen.

If the film is pleasant on the ears, it’s just as pleasant on the eyes. The Tenenbaum home is covered in vibrant oranges, reds, browns and occasional blues, while the characters wear adult versions of the same ’70s clothing they wore as kids, literally wearing their scars on their sleeves. But the aesthetic goes beyond set and wardrobe and into the various graphical elements on screen. Like the labeling in montage, as with Max’s Rushmore activities, but used here to label the mundane objects like “safe deposit box,” “drum set” and “H.A.M radio.” Or the “chapter” pages that divide up the episodes, showing printed text of the actions that are about to play out. Or the collages, repeating the same image five or six times within the frame. As soon as these collages register as a constant motif, we begin to grasp Anderson’s presence as a strong director.

How strong? Consider Margot’s positioning as her brothers speak to a doctor — she’s small in the corner, the outcast adopted child who never truly feels part of the family. Perfect symbolism. Or the eight camera marks hit when Eli and Margot break up on the bridge. Rewind and watch the careful orchestration of that one. Those who claim Anderson as an auteur require Tenenbaums in their argument. It is, after all, an important extension of the techniques practiced in Rushmore. Again, we get an underwater shot, this time with three people (by counting the number of people underwater, you can determine what number film it is in Anderson’s career). Again, we get slow-motion shots, like the important scene of Margot getting off the bus, and again to close the film.

We also get the trademark doubletakes, like the camera tilting back and forth between Chas’ kids on the jungle gym when they first encounter Royal. And most impressively, we again get a complex side dolly in long take, this time lasting 2 1/2 minutes as we dolly down the street in front of the Tenenbaum home to see nine different character interactions: Raleigh with the priest on a gurney, Eli with police officers, Royal with a fireman and dalmation, Raleigh with firemen, Richie getting his eye checked out, Henry and son in the window, Ethel with Chas’s boys, Royal with Chas and dalmation, and finally looking at Ethel standing on the front steps. To do all that in one take is a wonderful feat. By the end credits, we’ve become so accustomed to Anderson’s techniques that we expect to see the same lowercase first names and uppercase last names. He’s done it in all of his films except his latest, The Darjeeling Limited.

That’s twice I’ve mentioned Darjeeling as the exception to the rule. Is Anderson departing from his early auteur promise, or did he deliberately alter Darjeeling to further accent the common threads in his other films? It’ll be fascinating to see where Anderson goes from here. In Thomson’s Film Dictionary, he gives Anderson a short entry that reads simply, “Watch this space. What does that mean? That he might be something one day.” Yet his most ardent supporters will claim he already is something. After all, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums have already been selected for the Criterion Collection, and Anderson has already had his own retrospective series at the AFI Silver. Will Anderson continue his claim as an auteur for his generation, or will he be exposed by several more lackluster efforts? Time will tell, but all things considered, dropping Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums right out of the gate is an accomplishment on its own.

Citations: 

CITE A: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
CITE B: The AV Club, http://www.avclub.com/content/node/24899/1/1,  Tasha Robinson, February 9th, 2005

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