Stars: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anjelica Huston, Luke Wilson | Written and Directed by Wes Anderson
The final part of Wes Anderson’s “Owen Wilson trilogy” (the last Wilson co-wrote) is a typically oddball family opera. From the opening scene we see the Anderson tropes: A muzaked cover of a classic rock tune (Hey Jude); an erudite narrator (Alec Baldwin) presenting a cast of quirky characters; meticulously stage-crafted framing; precision pans and zooms; and photography swathed in bold primary colours.
The Tenenbaum children were once destined for social excellence. Chas was a precocious business genius; Richie was a champion tennis player; and adopted daughter Margot was a promising playwright. Jump past their 20s, however, and we find that Chas (Ben Stiller) is a widower who’s so obsessed with his children’s safety that he’s forgotten how to live; Richie (Luke Wilson) threw away his sporting career; and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) spends her days secretly smoking cigarettes instead of writing.
Patriarch Royal (Gene Hackman) has been banished by his wife. Ethel (Anjelica Huston) is looking forward to a new relationship, with her accountant Henry (Danny Glover). But Royal wants back in, so he concocts a BS story about having six weeks to live. He’s invited into the family home. And for a while his plan works, as three broken generations of Tenenbaum are brought back together. But it’s not long before old regrets and lusts and resentments re-emerge, and we begin to understand why the Tenenbaum project was doomed to failure from the start.
Stylistically, things would change from The Life Aquatic onward, but this is Anderson basically grounded in the real world, with few flights of fantasy and a conspicuous absence of miniatures or animation. The Royal Tenenbaums’ success must come down to a group of good actors inhabiting well-sketched characters within an intricate tapestry of conflicts – even if, ultimately, the payoff can’t quite match the setup.
The non sequitur-based humour that Anderson has honed for two decades is present and correct. It’s a style that can be excruciating when aped, but Anderson has the intelligence to make it funny and the control to ensure it doesn’t descend into tiresome “randomness”. And, as always, the biggest laughs come from the driest of mumbled throwaway lines. After someone attempts suicide and mentions a substantial note, another character asks, “Can you paraphrase it for us?”
The film comes from an age before fragile-sounding covers of rock songs had become synonymous with overblown TV commercials. It sounds almost clichéd now. But for Anderson this repurposing always had purpose: A different way of looking at the familiar in the everyday world. His overarching intention, it seems, is to soften the hardness of reality through the power of whimsy.
Anderson is a sentimentalist at heart, and the sentimentality in The Royal Tenenbaums is undoubtedly packaged with unique charm. And often – perhaps more here than in any of his other films – he puts aside the quirkiness to allow genuine warmth to play out. The relationship between Ethel and Henry is untouched and earnest.
But I still struggle to identify what The Royal Tenenbaums is really about. Clearly there’s this family; and Royal’s journey is one of nominal self-discovery. I just wish Anderson’s ability to present his characters (with heavy reliance upon narration, it must be said) were matched by an equal willingness to give them an equivalently nuanced and interesting path to travel. We get foible upon foible, and it’s never boring and we never know what’s coming next. But looking at the story as a whole, I’m not sure we’re left with much more than a peep through the window of a very strange home.
Extras: A documentary following Wes Anderson (“The Filmmaker”) during the making of the film; Interviews with all of the main cast; deleted scenes (hello, Olivia Williams); an amusing parody called The Peter Bradley Show; a scrapbook containing art from the film and annotated script pages; and trailers.
The Royal Tenenbaums is out on Blu-ray now from Criterion.