Wes Anderson, it cannot be denied, has his own style. HIs shots are framed with a laser accuracy on an oddly organised and symmetrical world that seems to have fallen through a bath of retro whimsy. This style came to a beautiful fruition in both Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. The Royal Tenenbaums is an earlier film, and one of the films that gained Anderson his religiously obsessive cult following. As the film opens with an unbearably twee chapter heading, as if the fairytale was coming to life before our eyes you understand that you’re in for the same Anderson style that we’re all now used to.
The Royal Tenenbaums are a family where each member is a universe and personality unto themselves, apart from their servant Pagoda (Kumar Pallana) who is a loosely sketched Indian stereotype, and apart from Richie (Luke Wilson) who is a vague re-imagining of Bjorn Borg. The rest have their own clichés and foibles that constitute the entirety of their personality. This is carried through in everything they do, right down to their unchanging costumes, flagging to the viewer that these are not real people, they’re archetypes from someone’s imagination play-acting at being people. For example, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), is an ex-playwright going through a creative slump. Her role in the film is the disenfranchised outsider since she’s the “adopted child”. She has emblematically been a smoker since age 12 but hid it from her family in order to create distance and mystery. The whole film could be her creation, dispassionate, sarcastic and depressingly hollow.
Fittingly the mother figure, Etheline (Anjelica Huston) is an archaeologist. The Royal Tenenbaums is a film entirely about bringing out the skeletons in closets that hang around family homes. This happens when Royal (Gene Hackman), the absentee father who never bothered to get a divorce tries to win back his family’s love – not for any good reason, but out of a misplaced misogynistic and racist outrage that his wife wants to divorce him for her black accountant, who he makes racist quips at throughout the film. His plan to do so is to fake a terminal illness so that he can live rent-free in the family home and mess up his wife’s burgeoning romance.
However, despite all the forcibly injected quirk and orthogonal camera angles it would be naïve to think that this family has anything radically different to deal with than any other, over and above their affectations. If anything, the problems these people deal with are exclusively the result of the pigeon-holes they all put themselves into. Margot is perfectly capable of living a fulfilling life and falling in love, away from her family. Richie had a successful tennis career before he confronted his relationship with his sister. Chas (Ben Stiller) is the only character who sees any real emotional growth through the film, neurotic and paranoid after his wife’s death he decides to clear any danger from his childrens’ lives and thus starts to rob them of any childhood. Even here the message is unclear – Royal manages to win back Chas’ affection by lavishing the attention he never gave Chas on Chas’ kids and by buying them a dog.
All this is epitomised in the character of Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). He was Richie’s childhood friend and now Margot’s lover, although there’s not really any love shared between them. His contact with the Tenenbaums led him into their messy incestuous world and a drug addiction. When Royal eventually does die of an unrelated cause the whole family, as well as Eli, shows up to his funeral. Even his gravestone is a lie, making him out better than he was. At the end of it all you can only conclude that sometimes people who make each other’s lives significantly worse will somehow end up sticking together anyway. It’s too flippant to be a tragedy but too depressing to be a comedy, The Royal Tenenbaums just leaves a taste of dissatisfaction with life lingering in the mouth.
- Entertainment: 1/5
- Artistic: 3/5
- Intellectual: 2/5