One cannot review this film without really reviewing Wes Anderson himself. Frankly, this film is really no different from his usual fare. This film shows the best and the worst about Wes Anderson. At his best, he is the most gifted cinematic satirist since Preston Sturges. I have never really seen Anderson at worse, but I do feel frustrated over the fact that his films barely change.
I don’t consider The Royal Tenenbaums to be his best work because they lack that familiarity. Satire, in order to work, has to have some basis in reality. This is still a very funny film, and it is easy to see why it is so beloved. But, unlike Rushmore, none of the characters seem grounded in our world. Rushmore was a better satire because Max Fischer was the undeniable oddball in every situation he was placed in. Here, each of the characters are oddballs. It becomes more of a screwball than a satire.
It’s still a very funny film that I enjoy immensely. But I don’t enjoy it as much as Rushmore.
The film is about the ultimate dysfunctional family. Royal and Ethel Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman and Anjelica Houston) raise a family of child prodigies. Yet as they go into their adult lives, they are all paranoid and barely able to do anything. Chas (Ben Stiller) is still in shock over the death of his wife, the adopted daughter Margot (Gwenyth Paltrow, in one of her most famous roles) is in a loveless marriage, and Richie (Luke Wilson) has retired and is obsessed over the possibility of a relationship with Margot. Royal, in an attempt to reconnect with the family after years of estrangement, fakes an illness and tries to bond and save his kids.
The best thing about the film is how it follows my own personal rule of comedy. Acting serious in a dumb situation is inherently hilarious. The situation here is one of pure fantasy – it is so bizarre that it threatens to collapse at any minute. But the actors treat the material as though they are in a brooding Chekov play. The result is far more hilarious than if the actors were trying to play it as comedy.
None of that is out of the norm for Wes Anderson, but the cast he has assembled certainly is. Most remember Gene Hackman as Royal the most (Gene Wilder apparently turned down the role…that would have been something to see) but I think Gwenyth Paltrow’s Margot demonstrates exactly why the film works. Paltrow has done comedy and drama, but you would never know that she was such a natural comedian watching the film. Her voice never wavers past nonchalance, and her demeanor suggests that she has become a sort of artistic Atlas – carrying the weight of her own genius but unable to get any results from it.
The rest of the film features very memorable array of characters, so bizarre that it is hard to understand how they became the people they are. Royal Tenenbaum is a constant liar (my favorite moment involves when he describes an assassin stabbed him in the stomach and carried him to a hospital – only later to we see his stomach and find no scar present) and a petty crook. He maintains that style of life throughout the film. Yet the kids are bizarre – we can hardly consider them geniuses. I don’t really think that Wes Anderson considers them such either. It is merely a prologue to give us empathy for the characters. It works, but it would have been helpful to see the kids actually creating more. For example, none of Margot’s plays are shown (except in small fragments and in publicity material). It would have been an interesting touch to see them change as her life changes.
Maybe that would have helped create the familiarity I was looking for. The Tenenbaums are all just so bizarre in their behavior that it prevents anyone from relating to their plight. If this were meant to be some sort of basic screwball or comedy of manners, that would be fine. But I do think that Anderson is trying to be a satirist first and foremost, and show us something about ourselves.
I guess my ultimate complaint with Wes Anderson in general is that it is very hard to separate anything in his filmography. I do not blame him for being an auteur, or even working in one specific genre. In fact, I think that is part of his undeniable charm. But sometimes, his films are impossible to separate from each other. He goes over the same themes of American failure and familial dysfunction. I would never for a second say that you should not see this film – it is a funny one. But, as talented as Anderson is, I am sometimes frustrated by his insistence on making the same film.