There are few, if any, straddlers on the Wes Anderson Fence. People either love his work and celebrate his relentless attention to detail and characters or they loathe him for what usually amounts to superficial reasons (‘That stupid font!’ they cry. ‘Oh, another slow-motion sequence set to a song from the ‘60s’ they moan). But, whether you adore or despise him, there is no mistaking that Anderson is a director in the truest sense because his films are unmistakably his, a feat easier said than done. It’s apparent that every frame of his movies are painstakingly prepared for, obsessed about, and executed to match his vision. How many other directors working today can you say that about?*
I, like the fine editors of this website, love Wes Anderson. The Royal Tenenbaums is a movie I’ve watched countless times, a cinematic comfort food for my brain. I’m normally terrible at remembering quotes from shows and movies but I have vast chunks of dialogue from RT safely lodged upstairs for instant recall.
RT opens with Alec Baldwin providing the voiceover for a faux book by the same name. Here we learn about the ‘family of geniuses’ when they were at their apex, growing up at the house on Archer Avenue**. In a sprawling, 15-minute montage that opens the film we meet the children – Chas, the business genius, Richie, the tennis savant, and Margot, the budding playwright (shown as ‘grown-ups’ as Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow, respectively). And, naturally, we meet Royal (Gene Hackman), who makes an immediate impact as the aloof patriarch who would put his foot in his mouth if he was conscious of just how unintentionally offensive he could be (he introduces his daughter as ‘This is my adopted daughter, Margot’ without fail; he chuckles after shooting Chas with a BB gun in an act of backyard treason). The dream cast is rounded out by: Anjelica Huston as Etheline, Royal’s wife by title only; Danny Glover as soft-spoken accountant and bullshit-sniffer Henry Sherman; Bill Murray, donning a Freudian beard and eyeglasses as Margot’s psychologist husband Raleigh St. Clair; and Owen Wilson (who co-wrote the film) as pseudo-intellectual hanger-on Eli Cash.
And that’s one of the great commonalities in all Wes Anderson films: a wide cast of characters who are simultaneously ridiculous and yet totally relatable. In the kids, we’re shown the promise of youth; as adults, expectations left unfulfilled. Eli Cash (co-writer Owen Wilson), the drug-addled friend from across the street who “always wanted to be a Tenenbaum” is jealousy/approval-seeking personified. Who, as a kid, hasn’t wanted to join another family?*** Royal, a man who just wants to put a nice bow on a life where he misplayed a number of hands, is man’s want for redemption and closure.
The plot finds the entire family back under one roof in a perfect storm of circumstance; Chas is worried about the safety of his sons, Ari and Uzi, an extension of his grief over losing his wife the previous year. Margot’s severe writers block can’t be salvaged by secretly chain-smoking in the bathtub anymore and needs to recharge. And Richie, who post-tennis has traversed the world trying to get over his (adopted!) sister, decides to come home as well.
Meanwhile, Royal gets kicked out of the hotel where he has taken up residence for not paying his bill and decides that the only way to get his family back is to fake having stomach cancer. True to his character, Royal’s intentions are both well-meaning and ulterior; he wants to make things right with his family only because it conveniently coincides with his eviction. When he’s found out to be a faker, the family is not so much mad or disappointed as they are mildly unsurprised; it’s just Royal being Royal. It’s only after Richie attempts suicide (forever making Elliott Smith’s ‘Needle In the Hay’ one of the most depressing songs ever since it foreshadowed Smith’s own suicide…. and yes, this is still a comedy) that a switch is really flipped in Royal. That’s what makes RT my favorite Wes Anderson movie (a Sophie’s Choice on steroids if there ever was one): seeing Royal finally figuring things out by the movie’s end is proof that an old dog can learn new tricks, but they might take a whole lot of practice to get right.
*Here, in the cowardly confines of the footnotes, I’ll make a confession – the first time I saw Rushmore I didn’t ‘get’ it. I was also a dumb college freshman whose horizons were about as broad as dental floss, still a few years off from realizing there was more to cinema than what the Blockbuster New Releases section had to offer. Not to mention that so much of really appreciating movies is circumstantial. The when/where/who with can really effect your perception, especially when your brain is still in kind of an embryonic state. So maybe half-watching it in a stuffy dorm room was not my best introduction to old Wesley. Watching it again a few years later I felt ridiculous for not having embraced it immediately, the same way someone who voted for Ralph Nader might feel.
**The Royal Tenenbaums takes place in a weird, timeless Manhattan (save for the tombstones in the cemetery, which let you know that this takes place in the early 2000’s… though everything else in the film would lead you to believe its the 80’s. That could just be due to the Tenenbaum childrens’ clothing choices [Chas’s Adidas jumpsuits, Richie’s Bjorn Borg-inspired outfits] as an outlet for their arrested development). The Tenenbaums’ house on ‘Archer Avenue’ (of which there is one in Queens) is actually on 144th Street in Harlem. Royal recoups after being kicked out of the house at the 375th Street YMCA (no such thing). Even the shot in Battery Park where Pagoda (the ultimate wingman, if not for the whole stabbing thing) is telling Royal about Mr. Sherman’s proposal to Etheline was done so that he would block the Statue of Liberty (see below).
*** Particularly when you get a narrow glimpse of what it’s like in someone else’s house, where dysfunction is stowed away just enough to make you question your own family’s normalcy (when, it turns out, everyone is a little nuts in the end).
— Baron is an editor at the sister website, Music’s Okay (I Guess). Click on the hyperlink to read his thoughts on all things music.