Like Wes Anderson’s last film Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums is sure to be a big hit with critics and offbeat audiences. Count me among their number, but let me qualify my praise with a dose of devil’s advocacy.
The Royal Tenenbaums, like Rushmore, has quirky characters made even quirkier by symmetrical, head-on cinematography and unexpected edits. There are some very funny visual gags, like the Gypsy Taxicabs that appear throughout, or the valentine-pink interior of the Tenenbaum house.
But I can’t shake the feeling that Wes Anderson is trying a little too hard to be offbeat. His is a forced quirkiness, still funny and artful, but not so much as if it were a more honest, naturally-occurring form of eccentricity.
Meet the Tenenbaums
R for language, nudity, drugs
Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum, and his family makes up the universe of this film. Everyone in the film seems to have written a book, and as each character is introduced, his or her book is flashed on the screen.
Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Huston) wrote a book about her genius children. After they grow up, she becomes an archaeologist who unearths human skeletons in urban(!) dig sites. Her accountant and boyfriend is Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), whose electric blue velvet jacket offsets his white hair and humorless demeanor.
Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow round out the cast as the Tenenbaum children, now scattered and miserable. Once geniuses, all are now failures. Little Chas used to broker real estate deals and breed dalmatian mice, but now he’s down on his luck. Richie was a professional tennis player, whose career ended spectacularly the day his sister Margot, the prize-winning playwright, married neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray). And when Margot gets bored with Raleigh, she has a fling with the Tenenbaum’s lifelong neighbor and friend Eli (Owen Wilson, who co-wrote and co-produced).
All these characters have gone their separate ways (including Royal, who moved out after the divorce), but they converge again in the family home when Royal feigns terminal cancer.
All in the Family
Feigning cancer is a pretty lousy thing to do to your family, but Royal’s intentions are noble. He’s sorry for not being a better father and husband, and he wants to patch things up. His remorse is sincere and his desire to set things right is genuine. “Can’t somebody be a shit their whole life and try to repair the damage,” he asks.
Although Royal is apologetic, he is not entirely changed. He hasn’t stopped being a shit. To him, being a good grandfather means committing misdemeanors with the little ones. And if he can buy acceptance or love, that’s as good as earning it. Still, the movie forgives him because his heart is in the right place.
Like Royal, most of the other Tenenbaums have something to regret, and they blame their family for their problems. Like Royal, ironically, family is where they turn for help. Richie needs to open up to Margot. Chas needs to work things out with Royal. Margot needs to feel like she belongs. And home is where it all has to happen.
Anderson assembles a dream cast. The sheer star power of The Royal Tenenbaums should be enough to draw audiences, even without Anderson’s sense of style or the film’s comic finesse. But Anderson overshadows them all with his outrageous style.
With Anderson, style is all-important. Everything on screen is richly colored and all the sets are densely packed (how many Milton Bradleys did you spot in the closet?). With Anderson’s films, chaos reigns and critics revere.
But Anderson tries so hard to fill the screen with jokes that it is difficult to connect with the characters. Anderson acknowledges this criticism, and he makes a special effort to make The Royal Tenenbaums more emotionally honest than his previous films. Even so, the emotion is still mostly lost among the sight gags, the garish pink sets, the bright red jogging suits, and the tight gray polyester pants.
I hope Anderson keeps evolving, either finding a more even mix between quirk and empathy, or abandoning empathy altogether. Either way, I’ll be looking forward to his future projects. Hopefully they’ll be even better than The Royal Tenenbaums.