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After his zany debut, Bottle Rocket, and the endearing Rushmore, Wes Anderson wowed the film world with something raw, revelatory, and generation-defining. If you think I’m overstating it, pop in your DVD of The Royal Tenenbaums and really watch it, because it deserves better than the “quirky family dramedy” label time has affixed to it — trust me.
Yes, The Royal Tenenbaums is quirky (and I swear this will be the last time I use the word, which seems to be Anderson-haters’ primary form of ammunition). It’s colorful pop art with a humorous slant, but the themes are quite adult and depicted in an almost tragic fashion.
My love affair with the film began in 2002, though it was a hardly a love affair at that time. Barely pubescent, I didn’t really get what the hype was about or why Ben Stiller wasted his considerable comedic talents on something that wasn’t really funny. Of course, that was the same kid who thought Die Another Day was the best James Bond movie EVER(!), so take that opinion with a grain—nay, a block—of salt.
It wasn’t until the release of Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited that my opinion started to change. A little over a year into my current state of cinephilia, I was eager to consume anything and everything in theaters, yet this title caused some trepidation. “Wes Anderson … isn’t he the dude who directed that weird movie with Ben Stiller in the red jumpsuit?” Yes, but I watched it anyway. I dug it. And I thought I’d matured enough to give “Tenenbaums” another shot.
That’s when the love affair began.
I’ve now seen The Royal Tenenbaums at least a dozen times, including very recently in preparation for the wide expansion of Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom. It’s an amalgamation of everything I love about movies—clever writing, unique characters, and confident direction—and easily one of my favorite titles of the last decade.
It begins and ends with Anderson, really. The guy is, if nothing else, incredibly creative. You see this manifest itself with the intricate backstories outlined in the film’s prologue. Narration is often frowned on in movies (for good reason), but Alec Baldwin’s fits this film like a glove. The characters aren’t ones we’re used to seeing on the screen. In fact, the film as a whole has a literary feel that Anderson doesn’t shy away from, even visually.
Speaking of visuals, even Anderson’s biggest detractors can’t deny his skill in that department. You might not appreciate this film’s very particular (and peculiar) production design, nor the man’s eye for symmetry, but Anderson’s films are full of character and easily identifiable—a sign that a director has confidence in what he’s doing.
Music, too, is an important part of The Royal Tenenbaums, as it is in its director’s other films. The aforementioned prologue plays to an oddly pitch-perfect orchestral rendition of “Hey Jude,” while Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” plays over another montage—perhaps the film’s most lighthearted sequence. And a key scene late in the film will break your heart if you’re at all familiar with singer-songwriter Elliott Smith.
Then there’s the cast, which is as accomplished as any film today. Anderson regulars Bill Murray, Luke Wilson, and Owen Wilson know what’s expected of them. Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow are bigger surprises, as they aren’t exactly what one might think of when they picture Anderson players. Gene Hackman, of course, steals the show at every turn. His titular character is a real scoundrel, yet he’s as lovable a scoundrel as you’ll find in any film.
The Tenenbaums are a very insular clan, and over the course of several decades, each individual expects something out of those around them. Hackman’s Royal wants his family to accept him for the vagabond he is. His ex-wife (a wonderfully subdued Anjelica Huston) wants to be swept off her feet the way Royal once did. Stiller’s Chaz wants his father to admit he did him wrong. Paltrow’s Margot simply wants her father to admit he loves her. Owen Wilson’s Eli wants to be a Tenenbaum (he lives for years with honorary Tenenbaum status), while Luke Wilson’s Ritchie yearns for Margot’s love.
Ultimately, Anderson is touching on issues relating to unfulfillment and expectations not met. For the most part, Royal imparts his headstrong attitude on those around him, which means they allow their baggage to hold them back. It’s a simple concept, but few filmmakers are able to show it as powerfully as Anderson.
I called The Royal Tenenbaums “generation-defining” because I think it is. The film has a strong sense of place, but it’s actually rather timeless. And though its characters are mostly oddballs, they’re surprisingly relatable. For anyone struggling to find his or her place in life—the post-college set, for instance—The Royal Tenenbaums will hit close to home. For others, it’s a reminder of what it was like to feel isolated, frightened, angry, in love … you name it.
Plus, it’s damn entertaining. What else could you possibly ask for?