The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Running time: 01:03:00
Writers: Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson
Director: Wes Anderson

Finally got a chance to see this movie, one of the few times I’ve ever looked forward to an “all-star” vehicle. At the time of this writing, I have seen Anderson’s Bottle Rockets but I haven’t yet seen the one film of his my friends keep commending to me, Rushmore. Normally when you get a cast of this calibre together, you end up with some overblown nonsense like Cannonball Run or the recent Rat Race, but this time there is no attempt to have a story as grand as the actors, and the focus is smaller and more personal — an approach that seems to work.

Anderson is known for his quirky characters, and The Royal Tenenbaums is little more than a parade of such personalities. Each member has a oddity that is uniquely theirs, a desperate cry for individuality in a family made up almost entirely of facades and a lie to themselves that they are not part and parcel of that facade.

The movie really belongs to Gene Hackman, who brings out his best “comedic scoundrel” persona and moves the plot along with his various plots and embellishments. Royal Tenenbaum (the man) is a perfect homage to a bygone movie stereotype — the lovable but penniless schemer who will do anything to hold on to that last shred of dignity. He is enabled in this by his faithful manservant and would-be assassin Pagoda (scene-stealing Kumar Pallana) and his bellboy and (fake) doctor, Dusty (Seymour Cassel). Like the lovable con artists of yore, Tenenbaum’s deceptions are usually quickly unmasked, but he effortlessly and unrepentantly puts up another in the blink of an eye.

A key scene to illustrate this occurs early in the film, where Royal first contacts his wife Etheline (Angelica Huston) as part of his plan to win her back and move back into their home. He tells her that she has to help him because he is dying of an unspecified disease (a lie, naturally). When her reaction to this news (she hasn’t seen or spoken to him in 14 years) is much stronger than he anticipated, he changes stories and tells her he’s fine. When she gets angry at the deception, he changes stories again. It reminded me of a kid trying to suss out what to tell the folks and trying to tailor his lie to what he thinks they want to hear — before that skill is really fully developed.

The actual plot of the film is rather thin: Royal discovers that another man is wooing his wife and decides that even if she no longer wants him, she can’t have anybody else — a typically selfish position that most everyone in the film shares. He tries to interfere with with his wife’s developing love life while simultaneously winning over his estranged children and their offspring and/or partners in a series of goofy vignettes that often fail but always amuse. The real appeal of TRT is in it’s Welles-meets-Wodehouse literary style, the memorable characters and the delight the filmmaker has in setting up absurd situations and following them to their conclusions.

Each of the grown-children Tenenbaums share their father’s inability to live up to their name: In particular, Gwyneth Paltrow’s uncanny Margot Kidder impersonation as Margot (who makes much hay of her secret obsessions) and Ben Stiller as a too-wound-up Chas (who has forgotten the meaning of the word “relax” so completely that he thinks wearing a track suit 24 hours a day will make up the difference) stand out. Bill Murray contributes as Margot’s long-suffering husband but doesn’t really get the chance to shine that I’d have hoped for. Luke Wilson’s troubled Richie (in love with his adopted sister — a surprisingly dark turn in an otherwise lighthearted film) is masterfully underplayed compared to Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), who is meant to be the comic relief in a film full of comic despair. Doesn’t quite work in my opinion.

The outrageously good soundtrack (compiled by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and made up heavily of forgotten touchstone songs of the target audience’s youth — songs bounce from Nico/Cale laments to Vince Geraldi’s “Peanuts” theme in the blink of an eye) sets the proper mood for the film — familiar but strange, normal on the surface only. It’s David Lynch territory, but Anderson doesn’t feel the need to delve too deeply into the blacker parts of the psyche, whereas Lynch would have made the entire film about Richie and Margot’s secret.

Like all good tales of loss and redemption, TRB works itself out in the end, but hardly as the characters themselves intended. Moviegoers expecting a traditional straightforward tale will likely be befuddled by the film’s refusal to develop these characters in a normal manner, but fans of the Adaams Family and other lovers of dark humour will see this picture as a mild but worthwhile effort to bring dark comedy to the masses. For the most part, I think it succeeds at straddling the line between a film with artistic merit and one with commercial appeal. With the exception of Owen Wilson, all the actors have a chance to play outside their normal range and they clearly relish it. There are enough out-loud laughs and enjoyable moments to keep the film from falling into the “art-house only” category, yet plenty of quirky elements for those that enjoy them.

My rating: Interesting

About chasinvictoria

Writer/Editor, Comic Performer, Doctor Who fan, radio DJ, Punk/New Wave/Ska fiend, podcaster, audio editor, film buff, actor, producer, leftie (literally and figuratively), comedian, blogger, teacher, smartarse, and motormouth. Not necessarily in that order.

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