PSA: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), or Magnificent Opulence

17 12 2009

Out of all the Wes Anderson movies I have seen, I like The Royal Tenenbaums the best. I am not sure if it is his masterpiece, but whenever I see this movie, I cannot help but lose myself in it. There is a quiet mouthing of pastel joy in the heart of this film, a blithe human spirit dressed in the prim and proper attire of a stuffy wealthy sensibility. Wes Anderson’s beautiful epic comedy/drama is really in a class of its own; there will never be anything quite like it, and it is that striking uniqueness that makes it so enjoyable, and what will make it a cinematic classic in the coming years.

The Royal Tenenbaums follows the very unique lifestyles of the Tenenbaums, a well-to-do family headed by ne’er-do-well Royal Tenenbaum. He and his wife Etheline raise three prodigal children, two of their own, and one adopted daughter. Chas is a science genius, Richie is a tennis savant, and little Margot is a little playwright in her own right (HA!). They’re all living on a high from their arly success, but in their prime Royal rains on their parade by telling them that he and their mother will be separating. Cut to a few years down the line, and the Tenenbaum children are all in a post-prodigal funk. Chas is over-protecting his two sons after their mother died in an accident, Margot is married to a much older man she doesn’t really love, and Richie is unmoored in life after a meltdown at a tennis match. The family is scattered about everywhere, but news of a family tragedy brings them together. Royal, aghast at the thought of Etheline marrying again and broke after years of lavish spending, fakes stomach cancer and asks to stay at the house to try and interfere!!! Everyone gathers to see their poor, allegedly cancer-ridden father, and Royal sees for the first time what a circus his family has become in his absence. He tries to help out with Chas’s sheltered kids by getting them out more, helping Margot out by trying to give her advice on her relationship, and helping out Richie by giving him his honest opinion on the fact that he’s in love with his adopted sister (!!!). All of this stuff backfires on him, and it only gets worse when it is discovered that he is faking his illness. Can this family ever get back together? Can the children ever heal their wounds? Can Royal stop being such a damn jerk?

This gorgeous pastel movie practically drips off-beat indie-ness. it is everything fragile and forgotten, everything tragically hip and unnecessarily kept on the inside. It reminds me of the rare artistic child in school who had real problems, not some imagined malady that plagued him in a philosophical sense. It is a realization of the innate humor and sadness in the idea of a prodigy, the ones who peak too soon. It is sad that they have nothing to look forward to, but there is something so splendorous about their lameness that Wes Anderson captures so well. Anderson explored a little bit of the child savant idea in Rushmore, ANOTHER film I reviewed, and it stuck out to me then. This is something of a meditation on the notion of the young coming into their own, but growing up to be horrible adults. It is as well as a story of redemption, because everyone is running away from their responsibilities to themselves and others and they need a second chance at life. That’s where the good and at times loving heart of The Royal Tenenbaums lies, this idea that we all need a second chance to try again.

The soundtrack is one of the best I have ever heard. Anderson knows how to pick some good lo-fi acoustic jams for his very soft-spoken style of filmmaking. Simon and Garfunkel, Van Morrison, Erik Satie, The Rolling Stones, and others all pitch in some nice frolicking tunes for the movie, which make up the emotional center of the movie, since everyone is usually too damaged to say what they mean. The best example of this is from the clip above, when Richie tries to commit suicide. It is one of the most haunting images ever committed to film, and not a word is said in nearly 3 minutes. All that we hear are the strained chords on a beat-up acoustic guitar while Elliott Smith gently pounds away his terribly sad song, “Needle in the Hay”. These characters are either quiet, unable to say what they want, or comically dumb, so it’s up to the beautiful music that Anderson chooses to let us in on the mood, and he does a great job in informing us with as many rich details as possible.

The cast is PHENOMENAL!!!! What a great ensemble! When you hear about a great ensemble cast, this is the one that all others are compared to in the new millennium. Gene Hackman leads off as Royal Tenenbaum, the patriarch of the family and an all-around jerk. He’s pretty funny in that offhandedly thoughtless way. Owen Wilson, the co-writer of this with Anderson, does a fantastic job as well, as Eli, a friend of the family who always wanted to be a Tenenbaum. He flies by without much of a fuss, but his few key scenes are a delight. Owen Wilson is my favorite actor here. He plays Richie, the emotionally complicated tennis savant. There is a lot going on here, with the “loving the adopted sister” thing, so he has a lot to juggle, but he shows that he can really hold his own as an actor (too bad he’s hocking cell phones on TV nowadays…) Gweneth Paltrow is dead-pan Margot, adopted daughter of the Tenenbaums, and she adds a meek sarcasm to the movie that I think it really needed. She is sassy in a quiet-but-hilarious way, and in a few of the comments she makes, she tells a little story about her life that is WAY more exciting than anything going on at the time, which is, ironically, quite exciting. Ben Stiller is Chas, in his first real acting role since Reality Bites in the 90s. He has not really acted since, so if you liked him playing the straight man here, as I did, relish it, because it will not be happening very much more in the future, I believe. Anjelica Huston rounds it all out as the quiet, demure mother, Etheline. She is what drives the whole movie in a way, and her classy, independent ways are very close to how I see Mrs. Huston in real life. What an actress! What a lady!

The Royal Tenenbaums is good for me on so many levels. The music, the direction, the unique cinematography, the cast, the cameos by Bill Murray and Danny Glover, and the script come together in a wonderful collage of hilarity and heartbreak that I really, truly enjoy. If you like something that’s a little off-center and different, it also has a universal notion to it that we can all do a little better next time, and that’s a wonderful feeling to have, and it’s something that I can get behind as a filmgoer. You won’t want to miss this gorgeous com-dram that broke the mold back in ’01. I give The Royal Tenenbaums 10 adopted sister love-affairs out of 10! My highest recommendation!

Tomorrow, by request, I will be watching Judgment Night! Until then!

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