First off, I’ve never seen director Wes Anderson’s previous film, “Rushmore.” I realize that in some social circles, this is punishable by death. I know this because my friends are exactly this sort of group. That I have managed to survive long enough to view “The Royal Tenenbaums,” also by Anderson, comes as a blessing. . . but I digress.
The basic premise of “The Royal Tenenbaums” has been explored before: a dysfunctional family attempting to deal with coming together after many years apart. However, as with the movie itself, the interest is generated by the details. In their younger days, the three Tenenbaum children were all hailed as geniuses. Chas (Ben Stiller) was a successful businessman by his early teens, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) had won a $50,000 grant in the ninth grade for play-writing and Richie (Luke Wilson) was ranked second in the world of tennis by age 17. Parents Royal (Gene Hackman) and Etheline (Anjelica Huston) separated while their children’s prospects were at their brightest, though the subsequent failures of each of their offspring are due to more than the split of the parents.
The film does not follow each child’s fall from fame; rather, it picks the story up years later. Royal, who has been living alone in a hotel suite for 20 years, finds himself completely broke. With the assistance of the family servant Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), he attempts to rejoin the family he left, all of whom have returned to live under the same roof.
Interestingly, the movie offers itself in a book-like fashion. The first shot is that of a novel entitled “The Royal Tenenbaums” being checked out from a library. Anderson enhances this view through the use of a narrator (Alec Baldwin) and chapter shots dividing each sequence of events. Even the camera acts like a reader, craning inwards during interesting dialogue.
Without a doubt, the cast of characters is the film’s best asset. Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson have constructed a neurotic, incompatible and inevitably hilarious host of individuals. Each is cleverly detailed to the point of absurdity while maintaining enough humanity to keep the audience involved in their well-being. Costume designer Karen Patch deserves special mention for outfitting each Tenenbaum with a uniform befitting his or her role. In this family, clothing is a display case for quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Royal aside, character development is fairly limited. Instead of letting the audience discern the finer points of personality, the narrator states them outright. Then again, the Tenenbaums are for most purposes static, with roots firmly entrenched in the past. In both appearance and mannerism, these people have aged, but not grown. While this may come as a disappointment for those interested in character study, it frees up Anderson to delve instead into the subtleties of the relationship that binds this family together. Like a kid with wind-up toys, Anderson lays out a scene, drops in the necessary players, and stands back to watch. Some may complain that it all feels too contrived, but the style emphasizes the strength of the movie’s design.
It’s difficult to confine “Tenenbaums” to one genre. Comedy seems most apt. I spent most of the time laughing or waiting to do so. Thankfully, Anderson’s humor isn’t dependent on punch line or slapstick, so if you’re hoping for “American Pie”-type antics, I hear that “Super Troopers” does both of these quite well. Instead, the humor Anderson gives us is that of the awkward: awkward situations, awkward people and actions that get people into the aforementioned awkward situations. A classic example of this comes when Royal confronts his wife’s shy accountant and suitor, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). His greeting of “Hey Coltrane” and charges of “jive-talking” are so undiplomatic, one gets the impression that Royal could single-handedly set back race relations by twenty years. This being said, neither the humor nor the intention is in painting Royal as an overt racist. Rather, we laugh at Hackman’s portrayal of someone completely out of step with both modern and traditional sensibilities.
Despite the screenplay’s concentration on humor, it is this same unflinching and unapologetic script that runs through immense melancholy and tragedy. For some, this may come as jarring; usually we know what we’re getting into when going to a film. However, when dealing with so many unhappy, unrepentant people, it would be irresponsible to restrict their actions to those that make us laugh. Just as with its humor, “The Royal Tenenbaums” doesn’t blatantly tug at the heartstrings. You won’t hear any swelling music accompaniment; instead, a few tracks from the Rolling Stones’ album “Between the Buttons” make an aptly-timed appearance.
On some level, I wanted “The Royal Tenenbaums” to knock my socks off. Anderson’s peculiar little construct is fascinating to watch, with enough details, both in dialogue and background, to justify several viewings. This being said, the deliberate pacing and understated performances hold the viewer at bay. You may suspend disbelief for the antics on screen, but Anderson won’t help you along.