The name of Wes Anderson’s third feature film couldn’t be more inquisitive. Are the Tenenbaums royal? Are they duplicates of the father, whose name is Royal? If they are, when do they lose their individuality and become slaves to a society that doesn’t accept mental excellence? The Tenenbaums aren’t a family I’d like to be associated with–they’re eccentric, obnoxious, way too smart, crude, rude, depressing–but they’re a family I love watching. Their difference from society makes them interesting, and when told through Anderson’s eyes, their story becomes a compelling saga of family unity.
The movie functions like a bedtime story, and in that respect it is similar to Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, where a world of fantasy is brought to life through the animated narration of a grandfather to his grandson. Tenenbaums, too, is a fantasy. Its characters are unrealistic and exaggerated, and the world they live in seems to be unnaturally coloured to fit their mood, yet they are not boring people. Their story is narrated by a sombre and suave Alec Baldwin, whose voice presents no subjectivity, and whose tone reflects the absurd nature of their world. If my life could be narrated, Baldwin would be my number one choice.
The story opens with a prologue, detailing the rise of the three Tenenbaum children, Chas (Ben Stiller), the adopted Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Richie (Luke Wilson), to fame and fortune. They are brainy, and are guided through life by their less-than-caring dad, Royal (Gene Hackman, in one of his most natural performances), who is soon kicked out of the house by his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston). Each of the three children possesses a different quality: Chas is the businessman, clever with money and sharp with accounts; Margot is artistic, involved with plays and flippant about relationships; Richie is sporty, good at tennis and even better at keeping his appearance the same. Where Tenenbaums gets interesting is in how these three prodigies gradually decline after the absence of their father.
Chas loses his wife in a terrible accident, so subsequently lives a life of paranoia and fire drills with his two sons. Margot marries a psychologist, Raleigh (Bill Murray), but is completely unhappy. She also stops writing plays. Richie breaks down on the tennis court during one of his matches because he sees something in the crowd, an event that becomes heavily publicized. The movie picks up at these crucial moments in their lives, and uses them as stepping stones to pave out their journey to self-redemption.
But the journey is not so simple. Anderson, and co-writer, Owen Wilson, compound the trio’s challenges with an additional layer of complexity. Chas has a sour relationship with Royal, and when Royal re-enters his world in an attempt to reconnect with his estranged family, the two battle it out like a pair of spoilt kids. Their bickering is great fun to watch, and the chemistry shared between Stiller and Hackman is at the same time comical and heart-wrenching. Richie is in love with Margot, but fails to act on it, seeing as how they grew up as siblings, even though they’re not related by blood. It’s a story of numerous angles and perspectives, with each character–including Etheline and her romantic colleague Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), and Royal’s loyal right-hand man Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), and Richie’s childhood friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson)–given enough dimension to warrant our care.
Wes Anderson has developed a visual aesthetic that uniquely celebrates the ironic vibrancy of his stories while providing each of his films with a distinctive signature. Colours in The Royal Tenenbaums are bright and strong, often present to emphasize the mood of his characters, or the urgency of their situations. He films with constant tracking shots, usually gliding parallel to the action. This creates a two-dimensional plane that allows Anderson the freedom to play around with background as much as he does foreground. If Orson Welles pioneered deep focus to allow his audience the flexibility to choose what they wanted to see within the frame, Anderson responds by shortening his depth of field so that his audience still has the option to pick and choose, but contains it all in a shallow space. Eyes tend to wander from corner to corner–not front to back–even as central characters are speaking in the foreground.
With a film such as this, it’s hard to determine what its strongest aspect is. Story? Acting? Style? Music? What if it’s a combination of all four? Is that asking too much? Royal is desperate to get his family back, a family that has moved on without him. He doesn’t know this, so he fakes a terminal illness to attract their attention. Hackman plays these scenes with a certain frailty and a skip in his voice, drawing us in to his heartache at losing his loved ones. He’s alone, outcast, but eager for forgiveness. Can this be considered the movie’s strongest point? Maybe it’s not for us to really decide. In my opinion, Tenenbaums succeeds as a story because its many parts work seamlessly together to produce a slick and smooth finish. Its characters are memorable, its look leaves an imprint, its soundtrack heightens emotions. It’s a beautiful movie with a beautiful story, handled with care by one of cinema’s most quirkily original directors.