The Royal Tenenbaums
Every once in a while - not nearly as often as we would wish - there comes a deliciously witty, boldly conceived and well executed film that puts everything around it to shame. For example, 1999 had two, maybe even two and a half such films: "Run Lola Run," "Being John Malkovich," and about half of "Dogma." Now, at the tail end of 2001, we've been given the gift of Wes Anderson's "The Royal Tenenbaums."
Where to start? A voiceover narrator (Alec Baldwin in proper storyteller form) describes the history of Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and his New York family. When the film begins Royal has already been punished for his many sins; years ago he was disbarred and jailed for one of them. He was kicked out of his house and hasn't even seen his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) or kids Chas (Ben Stiller), Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Richie (Luke Wilson) for years. He is most cordially hated by one and all. But this is a comedy; and more than that it is a comedy that depends for its wit on making a kind of cosmic sense out of disfunction and rage. How rare is that? And how much rarer is it to make that comic vision work?
And in this film it works very well indeed. The three children (Margot was adopted, as she is constantly reminded) were all prodigies who never grew out of that emotional infancy, which we can see by their dress: They all, as adults, wear exactly the outfits they wore as children. And Chas, who now has two boys, Ari and Uzi, dresses them in the same outfits. They are not-quite-mismatched triplets.
What starts us all off here is Royal's desire to come back to the family, with hopes of regaining Etheline, who is being courted by her accountant/bridge partner Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). But true to his nature, Royal cannot simply state this. Instead he fakes terminal cancer, saying he has just a few weeks to live, and is duly installed in a bed in the house. The electric shock of having this supreme con man back home is what drives the story.
But we're well advised not to take it seriously; the narration, and the intertitles with chapter headings make sure that we keep our distance. So we can let the film's pleasures just come over us as we watch. Some of them are slipped quietly in, some of them are momentary gags, some are perhaps too heavily leaned on. But who cares? There are always more. What should we make of the dalmatian-spotted mice which Richie bred as a boy and now roam the house twenty years later? Or Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), Royal's aged and very short servant, who stabbed him thirty years ago but then saved his life? Or Chas and his fire drills? Or the fact that every cab in New York belongs to the Gypsy Cab Company? Or the fact that a drug-abuse clinic in North Dakota overlooks the Hudson River? Anderson, who also wrote the film with his partner Owen Wilson - in the film as Eli, the longtime friend of the Tenenbaum kids who's now a successful Cormac McCarthy-type novelist - has managed to distance us enough so that we can be bewitched by what we see on screen without being asked either to identify with anyone or, conversely, hate anyone. If the film has a weak spot it comes in the moments when the characters express normal human emotions; in context they're dropped in like lumps in the oatmeal. And yet Anjelica Huston, the still point around whom the film revolves, gives an extraordinary performance as the one truly human being in the family. She's hardly there, and yet she's completely there. We can give much praise to Gene Hackman for his work as Royal, and he is spectacular, but without Huston he would be much less.
It seems to me that films like this are harder to create, and harder to pull off successfully, than conventional Act 1-Act 2-Act 3 stories, with an arc of action and character and plot that follows the kind of structure you learn in scriptwriting classes. Anderson and Wilson have made a whole world for us in an hour and three quarters, and most of it is an absolute delight to visit.