The Royal Tenenbaums at 20
By Ryan O’Toole
Photo: The Criterion Collection — Source
Wes Anderson is the most original voice in comedy movies for the past 50 years. The only people even in the running are the Coen brothers, but while they have resurrected the stylings of Preston Sturges, Wes Anderson has been able to carve out his own corner of cinema and create something wholly original. He has become my go-to example for what a director does. You can pause any Wes Anderson film at any point and know exactly who directed it. His trademark symmetrical compositions, vivid use of color, and knack for costume design leave no question as to who’s behind the camera. His movies simply feel like nothing else out there.
Wes Anderson burst onto the scene immediately with his strong debut Bottle Rocket (1996), and followed that up with Rushmore (1998). If Bottle Rocket promised great things from its young director, then Rushmore already delivered that promise. In only two movies, Wes Anderson stood out from the crowd with his visual storytelling and unique comedic presence. In 2000, he was named “the next Scorsese” by Martin Scorsese himself, in the March edition of Esquire. But it was in Anderson’s next film that he not only cemented his trademark style, but also his place in the pantheon of comedy directors.
Similar to the Coens, Anderson is focused on failure, on eccentrics who scheme for greater things and secretly long for family. It is the extracurricular prep school student Max in Rushmore, the Jacques Cousteau-esque explorer at the center of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), or the fox out for the biggest chicken heist in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). All of his films feature elaborate and absurd situations put in place by his protagonists with an emotional undercurrent of the need for family. And nowhere is this more apparent than in The Royal Tenenbaums.
Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum, the patriarch of a family of former child geniuses who have burnt out in their early adulthood. Margot, played by an incredible Gwenyth Paltrow, was a brilliant playwright, Luke Wilson’s melancholic Richie was a tennis star, and Ben Stiller’s high-strung Chas was a business master. After years of failure and struggle, the Tenenbaum children return home to their mother’s (Angelica Huston) house. Royal has not seen his family for years, but lies to them and says he has stomach cancer in order to get closer to them again.
The ensemble cast exemplifies Anderson’s tendency for eccentric characters. The opening narration and quick-cut montage of the family’s past success and subsequent failures is rattled off effortlessly. The master of understated humor, Anderson’s actors are rarely dialed up or put in the effort of Jim Carey or Adam Sandler for a laugh. Each joke is tossed off by the actors, unaware that they are in a comedy, like Owen Wilson’s “Well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t.” No one ever sells a joke, which feels weird to say about a comedy movie in a world where the best comedic actors are the people who go out of their way to sell jokes.
But Wes Anderson is not like any other comic director. Where Judd Apatow creates open spaces for his comedians to improvise and fill with their energies, Anderson creates closed off, meticulously crafted spaces for his actors to perfectly inhabit. And when his character moments come through, like Chas and Royal’s fight in the board game closet or Eli’s blow up during a TV interview, it really lands.
The Royal Tenenbaums is a high wire act always balancing perfectly between humor and empathy. There is always a heart at the center of the movie, a longing for each character to reconnect as a family, even amidst the absurdity and the struggles. Upon hearing that Chas moved back home, Margot asks “Why are they allowed to do that?” and immediately packs her bags. There is always pain and sorrow present in every character and every action, even in it’s comedy, like in Royal’s half-hearted condolence, “I’m sorry for your loss—your mother was a terribly attractive woman.” The characters are going through real trauma and the movie treats it that way. They are always empathetic and feel like human characters. Wes Anderson has said “I like to do things that are a little surrealistic but with characters who are real. So that, even if things are a little unusual, the emotions will come through anyway.” And when the emotions come through, they hit you like a ton of bricks. The Royal Tenenbaums is Wes Anderson’s most emotional movie, with gut punches like Richie’s downward spiral leading to his suicide attempt. It’s a scene I’ve seen countless times that still gets me every time.
With a style so idiosyncratic, Wes Anderson is the cilantro of directors, you either like him or you don’t. And you’re able to tell almost immediately if you’re on the same wavelength. But if you’re clicked in with him, Wes Anderson is one of the best working directors, crafting indelible images and iconic images like Chas’ red tracksuit or Richie’s tent in the middle of the room. He creates some of the most joyous moments like Royal’s stolen day with his grandsons and moments so full of life, it is bursting off of the screen like Richie and Margot’s slow motion reunion set to Nico’s “These Days.” or Chas’ heartfelt “I’ve had a rough year, Dad,” in his one moment of vulnerability.
He may not have turned out to become the next Martin Scorsese, but he did become the first Wes Anderson, a title more fitting of his originality.