No other movie this year will make you feel as warm and fuzzy about New York City than Wes Anderson‘s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which is enough to qualify it as one of the few great American movies of the year. At any other time, Anderson’s third feature might have been considered something of a letdown, especially after the giddy rush of “Rushmore,” with its crackpot delusions of grandeur and a cantankerous whimsy that popularized the Andersonian cinematic style of the “melancomic.”
“The Royal Tenenbaums” is more of the same, but with a higher-profile cast including Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Danny Glover and Gwyneth Paltrow. The soundtrack is predictably stellar — peppered with baroque Sixties chamber pop and nuggets from the British Invasion that almost forces you at gunpoint into nostalgia. Anderson’s wit is more devastating than ever and the film’s meticulous production design — a feast for the senses — is second only to Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s “Amelie,” the only other film this year to eclipse “Tenenbaums” in the soul-stirring sweepstakes.
Anderson has engineered a truly marvelous vision of Manhattan, one that feels both out of time and of its time, as though the director synthesized the cover art from hundreds of New Yorker magazines, past and present, into a dreamy cartoon wonderland of gypsy cabs, pay telephones with dials and fabulous places called the 375th Street Y. One character even sports a hospital gown with the words Recovery Zone printed over the heart. In what city could you ever hope to find one of those?
Ostensibly the story of a family of geniuses contending with the inevitable slouch toward autumnal mediocrity, “The Royal Tenenbaums” can also be read as an elegy for a faded Gotham itself. Coming weeks after the terror attacks on New York City, the film’s romantic, heart-sunk vision feels like nothing less than a panacea for the grizzled urban soul. (Forget re-electing Giuliani; let’s elect Wes Anderson for mayor.)
Here the frenetic grandeur of “Rushmore” becomes a more faded grandeur fraught with melancholy, failure and the reduced circumstances of three genius siblings (Paltrow, Stiller and Luke Wilson) whose walk-out father Royal (Hackman) suddenly re-emerges after twenty years to make amends with his dysfunctional brood. “I want this family to love me,” Royal snaps to the family butler. “How much money you got?”
In Royal Tenenbaum, Anderson and his screenwriting collaborator, Owen Wilson, have created a central character that’s as richly wrought as Max Fischer, the teenage genius in “Rushmore,” and ten times more stubborn. In fact, Royal Tenenbaum could be Max Fischer several decades down the road, which is perhaps why Anderson chose to set his film seemingly out of time. It’s an answer film to “Rushmore” in many ways, which is probably why it will gain instant acceptance among Anderson’s expansive legion of fans. The director even includes a scene of Hackman driving a go-cart — a scene lifted from “Rushmore” that sums up Anderson’s compulsion to safely tread where he’s already tread before.
Warm, winsome, wicked, charming, clever, caustic, hot-headed, heartwarming and heartwrenching as it all is, you can’t help but wonder if the wunderkind Wes Anderson might have had too much at his disposal here, not the least of which is a stellar cast that’s so stellar that you have trouble deciding who should get the Oscar nomination. You end up rooting for rotten old Royal Tenenbaum, which is why Gene Hackman, of all the players, will probably be remembered at Oscar time, doing riffs on Bill Murray‘s “Rushmore” performance that should have won Murray an Oscar nod in the first place.
Gwyneth Paltrow turns in her best performance to date as Phoebe Caulfield — I mean Margot Tenenbaum — the doomed adopted daughter and failed playwright whose physical resemblance to Nico and Jennifer Jason Leigh says a lot about the tragic nature of the character, never mind that two Nico songs haunt the soundtrack like dual swans stained with eyeliner. There’s something cheap about Margot; it’s hard to lend her your sympathy, particularly if you’ve read the major works of J.D. Salinger, or John Irving‘s “The Hotel New Hampshire,” from which Anderson seems to have casually borrowed a subplot about incestuous sibling longing.
The music in the film hoodwinks your heart in the same way the “Rushmore” soundtrack did. Two classics (that can’t be named here, because rights are still pending) bookend the film in nostalgic reverie and make you question the emotions you’re feeling. Are they a factor of the songs rather than the movie itself? Infectious as they are, Anderson’s musical selections often verge on manipulative. He doesn’t hesitate to run dialogue as the songs play, an unusual tactic that also proves audacious during a scene in which two Tenenbaum siblings finally confront their desire for one another. Who would dare undershadow a Stones classic?
If “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenebaums” are both about how delusions of grandeur get you both everything and nothing in life — everything during the rush of youth and a whole lot less when you grow old — why do both films feel coated in pixie dust supplied by the VH-1 cable network?
In vintage clothing parlance, the Tenenbaums might be called “dead stock,” leftovers from another era that look as crisp and clean as if they had been stored in a closet since 1953. Brutal anachronisms all, they also feel like the dead stock of post-war American literature and film — the Glass family of geniuses from “Franny & Zooey,” the WASP stoics of “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and the dysfunctional Lamberts from Jonathan Franzen‘s current lineage lament “The Corrections.” “I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum,” bemoans Eli Cash, the Tenenbaum neighbor played by Owen Wilson who crash-lands into egomania and drug addiction as the Tenenbaums embrace their own shortcomings. “It doesn’t mean what it used to, does it?”
In his effort to capture the faded grandeur of the American nuclear family, Wes Anderson has created something of a balm for our troubled times. By making you pine for an idealized, almost cartoonish New York of the past, he helps you contend with your own reduced circumstances. These things (and people) don’t exist anymore, Anderson seems to be saying, but you can still have them in your dreams. At Christmastime, for many moviegoers, if we’re all still here, this will be more than enough.
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS THEATRICAL REVIEW IndieWire, December 14, 2001
- Categories →