I Don’t Think You’re an Asshole, Royal. I Just Think You’re Kind of a Sonovabitch
*The past two essays got a bit long. I’ll try to keep this one shorter. Ed. He failed.
Spoiler Warning for the whole movie.
My reaction to The Royal Tenenbaums is shaped by two screenings. The first I mentioned previously: sitting in front of the TV one afternoon, mesmerized by the film’s images. The second was a public screening at an art gallery. The audience wasn’t into the movie’s dry sense of humor and watching the movie on the big screen made the film’s dollhouse quirks that much more apparent. It was one of the most suffocating and uncomfortable theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. That was also the last time I saw it before I started this retrospective.
All in all though, the new viewing was very pleasant. My love for the movie wasn’t as intense as the first time, but it also didn’t feel as warped and stuffy as the last. So I’d call this a happy ending for me and the Tenenbaums.
But enough about me. We’re talking about Wes Anderson. And if Bottle Rocket and Rushmore are notable for how far they stray from the Andersonian ideal, The Royal Tenenbaums is almost exactly what people think of when you speak the name Wes Anderson. Every stylistic choice and impulse from the last two movies is intensified, sometimes to the point of absurdity. If you thought Rushmore was dense and mannered, friend, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Compare their opening scenes. Both use framing conceits but one is far simpler. Rushmore uses curtains as title cards to move between scenes and tones, framing the narrative like one of Max’s plays. Tenenbaums, on the other hand, pushes its aesthetic conceit much further. The Royal Tenenbaums is a book. With a narrator, chapters and even illustrations. And it’s a lot more omnipresent. Rushmore starts with a curtain rise, a glimpse into Max’s dreams, Bill Murray’s speech and the Makin’ Time montage. It’s character exposition but it suggests rather than tells. Tenenbaums, though, is much more into “telling”. The opening scene lays out its scenario in one go by telling you the entirety of the characters’ backstory. It’s an ambitious move and one that plays well. But it’s also blatantly artificial, making the audience super conscious of the movie’s construction. This can be problematic, especially in the way that it frames the emotional backbone of the movie. Your mileage may vary, but there’s no denying there’s a difference between watching a story play out and watching a story being played out. Tenenbaums definitely falls in the latter camp.
But the emphasis on form isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Tenenbaums showcases an Anderson increasingly comfortable with his command of image and audio. And if nothing else the movie is a virtuoso bit of world construction. Everything from the Dalmation mice:
define a world as whimsical as it is exact. Is there any need for Pagoda’s room to be so grossly Indian?
No, but that’s his defining characteristic and the production design loves that kind of stuff. It’s simultaneously imaginative and a bit unhealthy. The house is filled with personal objects that continually reinforce the characters of the people who live there. It’s a safe space where one can be surrounded by the things that reflect one’s personality. But it’s also incredibly insular.
Thankfully, there’s a strong thematic reason for this. The Tenenbaum children were brilliant. But the point is that they “were” brilliant. Now they are a trio of broken adults: Chas is crippled by fear and loss, Margot is distant and bored, Richie is sad and conflicted. Each is stuck in a period of extended adolescence, not quite able to confront adulthood and its many problems. And though each has an internal reason for their brokenness, they do have a collective source of misery: Royal Tenenbaum.
“Why didn’t you give a damn about us, Royal?” asks Etheline as they walk together in the park.
how he marginalizes Margot:
or the way he took off after Richie’s breakdown at the US Nationals:
It’s perfectly obvious why the Tenenbaums are wary of him.
But, in the end, he’s a necessary part of the family. Etheline might have been a loving, if firm, mother. But she doesn’t have Royal’s spark and vitality. Without him the house at Archer Avenue remains a safe space where his children can relive their dysfunctions over and over again. With him there’s the possibility of hearbreak, but at least there’s also the potential for spontaneity of change.
This places a great burden on Gene Hackman’s Royal. But, come on, it’s Gene Hackman. He rises to the task like a champ. Royal is a huge, boisterous presence. An overwhelming force of movement and energy who even manages to break through the movie’s formal rigidity:
It’s a great scene. Fun and exciting and loose. Something the rest of the movie studiously avoids. These little set pieces help to keep up the movie’s tempo. Which is important. Tenenbaums is seventeen minutes longer than Rushmore. That may not sound like a lot, but it is. That’s seventeen more minutes of family drama in diorama form. But, thankfully, it never feels too slow. And the slower pace does help the dramatic elements land. Rushmore‘s frantic pace doesn’t really have time for some of the small character moments that pop up in Tenenbaums, like the scene between Etheline and Royal in the park.
It’s a quiet little scene that fleshes out Ethel’s character and gives Angelica Huston a little something to work with. It’s a very flexible bit of acting as Ethel moves from frustrated to worried to lightly amused. Huston navigates all of these modes with a dry elegance that makes her a perfect fit for Anderson’s deadpan dialogue. Plus it’s Angelica Huston and Angelica Huston makes things awesome.
Another small thing that adds a lot to the movie is the jokey way the production design deals with character exposition and development. Here is the costuming being cheeky:
Richie and Margot don’t seem to have changed at all. But unlike the scenes we catch from their childhood they wear their second layers (Richie’s tan jacket and glasses, Margot’s fur coat) throughout the adult sequences, a quick visual joke about their increased guardedness. Chas, in contrast, has changed.
He’s left behind his business suit for a track suit. But Chas’s bitterness towards his father isn’t his primary conflict. It’s the overprotective way he has begun treating his sons Ari and Uzi in the wake of their mother’s death. As such he’s changed them into track suits and makes them run fire drills at all hours, always nervous and ready, just in case.
But the most important aspect of Anderson’s movie still remains the emotional throughline. It’s a lot more complicated and ambitious this time around, considering the ensemble nature of the film. The film eventually settles into following two stories: Richie’s love for his (adopted) sister and Royal’s final reconciliation with the family.
The first finds Luke Wilson in one of his most substantial roles and he fills it quite adequately. It’s a difficult job making Richie sympathetic what with the squicky nature of the romance but Wilson’s easy friendliness makes him so. He even does a decent job in the more intense scenes but the emotional element mostly comes about in the suicide scene and its aftermath.
“I wrote a suicide note.”
“Yeah. Right after I regained consciousness.”
“Can we read it?”
“Can you paraphrase it for us?”
“I don’t think so”.
“Is it dark?”
“Of course it’s dark, it’s a suicide note.”
But The Tenenbaums generally prefers pathos over its comedy and the tent scene is weirdly touching, despite its strange implications.
The central emotional journey, though, is the one between Chas and Royal. It’s a plot thread that starts of early and is woven quite deftly through the background until it almost feels like a subplot. But it’s the storyline responsible for the movie’s most poignant moments, such as the moment Royal figures out how much he’s screwed up:
“Look, I know I’m going to be the bad guy on this one. But I just want to say that the last six says have been the best six days of probably my whole life,” says Royal.
“Immediately after making this statement Royal realized that it was true,“ adds The Narrator.
It’s the best instance of the movie’s tics working for it rather than against it. Gene Hackman is a great enough actor to convey the turn. But The Narrator’s confirmation isn’t just funny, it also underlines the emotion of the scene. Royal could bluff through this line. In fact he is. It’s only after he says it that he realizes it’s true. And The Narrator’s objective role makes it seem as if this time the movie’s not going to let Royal bullshit his way through life.
And, for all my complaining, my favorite moment in the movie is the clearest validation of Wes Anderson’s stylistic choices:
It’s his signature tracking shot, the one that draws together all the characters and all the stories. It’s the best one yet, pulled together by Mark Mothersbaugh’s sprightly choral minuet. But after all the light jokes and character bits we’re left with a boy, his father and the dog he bought for him. It’s the quietest of Royal’s reconciliation scenes with his children, but it’s also the most powerful. They stoop down to pet the dog and then Chas says, with the slightest catch in his voice, “I’ve had a rough year, Dad.”
And his father pats him on the back and says:
“I know you have, Chassie.”
It’s a small moment in a big, dense movie. But if there’s one thing I’ve found in Anderson’s early movies is that the small stuff matters. Because a lot of small things, taken together, can hold down the entire edifice. Without these moments The Royal Tenenbaums would remain a large and impressive construction. It would also be hollow. A dollhouse filled with handcrafted dolls. But with these moments, and the actors who perform them, it becomes something truly magnificent.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)