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Saturday, August 29, 2015

21st Century Essentials: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover
Country: United States

At one point in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums the family, less the man whose name provides the film with its title, sit around the table debating whether or not to let the errant patriarch back into the family fold and the younger of the two sons states, “I think he’s very lonely. Lonelier than he lets on. Lonelier than he even realizes.” It’s an accurate description of Royal Tenenbaum, but then it’s an accurate description of all the Tenenbaums, a family of deeply repressed and isolated individuals. All of Anderson’s films have a layer of melancholy to them, but Tenenbaums is the one which best demonstrates his ability to push through that sense of sadness, as well as past the distance created by affectation, with genuine warmth and humanity. Tenenbaums isn’t just one of the funniest and most quotable movies to come out so far this century, it’s also a moving story of a family learning to become a family.

The Royal Tenenbaums unfolds in novelistic fashion, complete with a narrator (Alec Baldwin) providing commentary and clarity on the characters and the context of events. At the head of the Tenenbaum clan are Royal (Gene Hackman) and Etheline (Anjelica Huston), long estranged as the story opens, whose three children are each stars in their own right, but have fallen into personal decline. Eldest son Chas (Ben Stiller) is a genius financier and single father to Ari (Grant Rosenmeyer) and Uzi (Jonah Meyerson) who has become obsessed with safety since the death of his wife in a plane crash. Younger son Richie (Luke Wilson) is a tennis star who suffered a public breakdown during a match and has spent his time since out at sea. Adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a playwright who hasn’t written anything in years, is unhappily married to scholar Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), and is having an affair with writer Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), Richie’s childhood friend. All of the members of the Tenenbaum family are adrift in their own way, but are brought together by two events which occur in quick succession: Etheline becomes engaged to Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) after 18 years spent turning down various suitors, and Royal announces that he’s dying of stomach cancer and has only 6 weeks to live.

Royal’s illness is a fabrication borne of both his need of place to live, having just been evicted from the hotel he’s been calling home for 18 years, and his desire to preserve his marriage because even though they’ve been estranged for the better part of two decades, and he’s indulged in his own outside relationships, Etheline is still his wife and he wants it to stay that way. Once all three of the Tenenbaum children have resumed residence in the family home, Richie gets Royal in there as well, at least until his deceit is revealed, at which point Royal is banished from the family. However, now that he’s had a taste of what it’s like to have a family (even if several of its members refused to embrace him even when they thought he was dying), he doesn’t want to let them go. While Royal is trying to figure out a way back in, the Tenenbaum children are hitting rock bottom – and it’s possible that only Royal can bring the family back from the brink.

All of the Tenenbaum family members are repressed in their own way. Etheline has lived in a state of stasis for almost 20 years, not wanting Royal back but not moving forward either, devoting herself to the preservation of the increasingly tarnished Tenenbaum legacy. Chas is avoiding experiencing the grief of his wife’s death by channeling those feelings into a hyper-vigilance over safety, stopping just short of wrapping Ari and Uzi in bubble wrap to ensure that they go through life unscathed. Richie is in love with Margot, a feeling which has broken something in him mentally. Margot, who thanks to Royal’s treatment of her during childhood has always been set apart as the “adopted” one, now keeps herself apart from everyone, keeping as much about herself a secret as possible. Even Royal, who outwardly seems to give in to all his whims and impulses, is repressing his desire to be loved and accepted by his family, a desire that takes over in him once he lets himself feel it just a little bit.

Because Anderson’s storytelling style – including, in general, the deadpan affect and, in this particular film, the use of a narrator as an intermediary - naturally creates a lot of distance between the audience and the characters, Tenenbaums’ aesthetic goes a long way towards nurturing the overall sense of emotional constraint, which makes the film’s warmth and moments of genuine feeling all the more impressive. From Henry’s proposal to Etheline, to the conversation that Etheline and Royal have while they’re out for a walk and before his lies are exposed, to Richie and Margot’s conversation after his suicide attempt, and Chas’ admission at the end of the film that he’s “had a hard year,” Anderson and the actors tap into something so real that it sweeps away the affectations which make the artifice overt and allows the film to end on a note that is heartwarming and absolutely earned.

Since making The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson has gone from indie wunderkind to respected auteur. While his last three films (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel) in particular have earned him a ton of critical acclaim and plenty of awards and nominations, I think that Tenenbaums remains his best work and enjoy it just as much now in 2015, and after seeing it multiple times, as I did back in 2001 seeing it for the first time. Like all great works, it just keeps attaining new layer of meaning and enjoyment every time you experience it.

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