“I’ve always wanted to be a Tenenbaum, you know…it doesn’t mean what it used to though, does it?”
In the opening moments of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” the third film from writer/director Wes Anderson, there are four familiar elements that immediately jump out. First, there is the warm, gravelly tone of Alec Baldwin’s voice, providing novelistic narration. The second element is the New York skyline in the background. The third element is Mark Mothersbaugh’s score re-appropriating the unforgettable, wistful chords of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” The final element of familiarity comes when Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) tells his three children that he and their mother Etheline (Anjelica Houston) are getting a divorce. That’s a kind of pain that far too many people (myself excluded) know too well.
That song choice, as many musical cues are in Wes Anderson films, is crucial. Paul McCartney wrote “Hey Jude” as a consolation for John Lennon’s son Julian, during his father’s ugly divorce. McCartney told “Jude” to take a sad song and make it better, and for a few years at least Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson) and adopted sister Margo Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) turn their sad song into almost absurd levels of precociousness. Chas becomes a real estate whiz, Margo tosses off plays faster than she chain-smokes, and Richie becomes a tennis wunderkind.
But that sadness doesn’t stay away forever. Adulthood, and the specific brand of melancholy, brings these brilliant siblings back down to Earth, down to the level of their rapscallion of a father, who has a plan to return to his family’s good graces. It’s the tribulations of this odd, troubled but ultimately endearing family that gives “Royal Tenenbaums” its funny, deeply profound kick.
And what a family. Etheline is an archaeologist who in turn transforms raising children into a science, writing a book about the Tenenbaum siblings. It’s not a surprise that she and Royal separated (they never officially ended their marriage). Royal, a former lawyer, is a freeloader, a conniver trying to give what’s left of his life some autumnal luster by reinstating himself as patriarch, and putting the kibosh on his wife’s impending second marriage to accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) by telling everyone that he’s dying of stomach cancer. His children are all in various states of melancholy. Chas’ wife died a year earlier, and he’s become obsessed with keeping his sons Ari and Uzi safe from various acts of God via insanely elaborate fire drills. Margo loses both a finger and inspiration for writing theater. She’s married to Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), a mild-mannered, bearded intellectual who doesn’t even begin to understand Margo’s inner workings. Richie has exiled himself aboard a yacht, having retired from tennis following a breakdown stemming from the unrequited love he has for his adopted sister Margo.
Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essays on Anderson’s oeuvre and especially this film explain beautifully everything that is going on in this film, not just in the story but in Anderson’s instantly recognizable directorial vision. Anderson is an acquired taste, no doubt about it, but there is so much to explore in the movies he creates. “Tenenbaums,” with its chapter headings and narration, is designed to feel like a novel, and it is just as rich and detailed as a great piece of American literature. Anderson is a truly extraordinary storyteller, and this film is his “Born to Run,” his “Rubber Soul” or “Highway 61 Revisited”; an example of a young artist swinging for the fences and succeeding in pushing his formidable skills to dizzying new heights.
Ever the control freak, every aspect of this film feels tailor made by its creators. The clothes the Tenenbaums wear that seem to have come out of a 1970s thrift store, the music choices which sample everything from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to the Velvet Underground and The Ramones, and the outsider’s view of New York City itself, with made up addresses (like the 375th Street Y) and hilarious avoidance of famous landmarks. This isn’t Scorsese’s New York; Anderson approaches the city as an idea more than a real place, filled with Salinger-esque intellectuals. But what I love about all of Anderson’s films is that he captures something that is so hard to put on-screen: the idea that this world existed before the movie chronicling it. What I mean is that the film conveys a shared, lived-in experience among its characters and environment.
For example, take the Tenenbaum house, that three story estate on the corner of the fictional Archer Avenue. Every room in the house, especially the bedrooms, is burnished with the personality of the Tenenbaums. Decor is Anderson’s version of prose; what we take in from Robert Yeoman’s camera gliding west-to-east across the screen gives us the same sort of information that a passage in a book does. Re-reading a book is like re-watching a film; we pick up on subtext, lines of dialogue, etc. that deepen the work over time.
“Royal Tenenbaums” is filled with that information. There’s Richie, still wearing his Bjorn Borg tennis headband, as a marker of what he lost when Margo broke his heart by marrying someone else. In Paltrow’s performance Margo is obsessed with being an enigma. She keeps her smoking a secret even though she doesn’t have to, she has lived multiple lives all over the world, looking for something. Inspiration, happiness, Rolling Stones bootlegs, who knows.There’s something otherworldly about her; she’s also having an affair with Eli Cash (Owen Wilson, who also co-wrote the script), a childhood friend who writes terrible revisionist Western novels and is addicted to drugs, which supplants an even older addiction to the Tenenbaum family. perhaps that’s why Richie is so obsessed with her. Chas, despite being a financial expert,who quickly turns his bedroom into a satellite office, is consumed by grief over the death of his wife, as well as bitterness toward his father; manifested in a BB lodged underneath one of his knuckles. This BB was fired amid a loss of trust, trust that Chas never rekindled.
Royal himself is the center of this eccentric universe of longing. He is a conniver, a philanderer. He’s a bastard, but not a heartless one. The thing that makes him, and Hackman’s brilliantly nuanced portrayal, so interesting is that he truly does love his family. He’s a lovable scoundrel, trying to manufacture his own narrative. He’s like “Rushmore”‘s Max Fischer in that fashion.
There is a lot going on in this film. It’s a low-key epic that jams in everything Anderson ever wanted to do as a filmmaker. This film is frequently hilarious, but this film has a core of darkness; all that sadness spills over, in Richie’s case it spills over into the bathroom sink (this scene is set to Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay,” which adds immeasurable poignancy given Smith’s own fate). Anderson writes in deadpan bursts, but his gift for casting allows him to find actors that know how to fill these brief exchanges with depths of feeling. The entire ensemble is extraordinary, even more so is the director himself. The gorgeous cinematography, the impeccable use of slow motion and tracking shots. I have a hard time deciding which Wes Anderson film is my favorite; there’s the inside-out coming-of-age fable in “Rushmore,” the gleefully absurd oceanic dive into the grieving process that is “Life Aquatic.” Even the stop-motion animated caper about familial responsibility that is “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Sic Transit Gloria, “Glory Fades,” is a Latin phrase in “Rushmore,” but it could be the slogan for all of these films, or even be printed on the Tenenbaum family crest. There are those who find Anderson’s films artificial, stiff and insufferably “twee” or precious. The guy’s got his own rhythm, but there is one scene where I knew I was permanently dialed into his frequency.
Richie is back from sea, waiting at the airport. The Green Line bus pulls in and Margo, his obsession, they even ran away to an art museum as kids, steps off. The world slows down. The distorted picking of Jackson Browne’s guitar starts up, and the deep German-accented voice of Nico comes in singing “These Days.” Margo approaches the screen, bathed in sunlight, a rare, slight smile across her face, in slow motion. Richie is transfixed, a close-up of his face fills the screen. We can see the longing in his eyes, even behind the oversized sunglasses. Even beyond the technical brilliance, there is a level of understanding of these characters that reverberates off the screen. This is one of my favorite scenes ever because it is a reminder of what makes movies great, especially this one. It doesn’t matter if characters, don’t look like we do, talk like we do, act like we do. After everything else, the Tenenbaums feel like we do.