The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

D: Wes Anderson
S: Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller

It seemed unlikely that director Wes Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson would be able to follow Rushmore with something as genuinely fresh, but they have. The Royal Tenenbaums is a delightfully quirky comic drama evincing the same unique perspective on people and on cinema which made their debut feature so endearing in spite of some generic familiarity. This film has a familiar vibe as well, a story of a dysfunctional family whose absent father tries to return to the fold and re-integrate it. The film presents this story quite literally as chapters in a book, thereby drawing attention to its narrative conventions, and it uses a peculiar combination of confrontational honesty and surrealist ellipsis to probe beneath the surface of textbook storytelling.

The father in question is Gene Hackman (Heartbreakers), an energetic if elderly ne'er do well whose exceptional family seems to have gone downhill in the years since his departure. He is separated from Angelica Huston (Agnes Browne), an exceptional woman in her own right who raised their three gifted children more or less alone and is currently being romanced by accountant Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon 4). The children, geniuses in their childhood, have grown up to be Ben Stiller (There's Something About Mary), Luke Wilson (brother of writer and co-star Owen), and Gwynneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love). Now Stiller is an obsessive widower, eager to keep his two young sons away from their grandfather, whom he despises; Wilson is a washed-up professional tennis player torn by romantic feelings for his adopted sister; Paltrow, reminded throughout her childhood of her adoption, is an emotionally and creatively blocked playwright married to well-meaning psychologist Bill Murray (Rushmore).

Huston's announcement that she will seriously consider the proposal of marriage from Glover is the catalyst which sets the plot in motion. Hackman re-enters the family on the premise that he is dying of cancer, but his real motivation is to keep an eye on the new suitor. One by one the children have moved back into the family home for reasons of their own, but they seem to have been as much drawn by psychic convergence as anything else. Conflicts and crises arise pretty much as you might expect from this genre. It is essentially a family melodrama, and the conventions of that form dictate that characters will confront each other and reveal hidden and explicit motivation, eventually leading to emotional catharsis and resolution. All of this happens, but it is again to Anderson and Wilson's credit that they have managed to make it seem as if they have been unaffected by precedent.

Foremost among the visual weapons of distantiation used by the director is the use of flat composition and close-up. The film initially seems to be composed entirely of static shots, alternating between side-on and direct-to-camera shots which resemble the child-like sketches by Anderson which are used to illustrate the 'book' upon which the film is based. This conceit has the effect of heightening the visual tension when the camera eventually does begin to occupy unusual spaces. There is a surrealist feel to it, as there is to the process of trying to read emotion into the curiously flat expressions on the faces of most of the actors. Only Hackman's character is animated, the deliberate exception to this world of people who have become closed to life in one way or another since he left them. It may be a scriptwriter's contrivance, but it works well in conjunction with the visual style, giving the film a cinematic design and an aesthetic character of its own.

The film is also what is usually euphemistically described as "deliberately paced". The phrase is usually a code word for 'slow', and there is a lack of urgency about the film, but here it does describe the schematic sense of structure and organisation employed by the writer and director. Drawing again upon literary forms, it presents scenes as discreet moments with narrative significance interconnected by developing themes and motifs which are articulated as much through words as images. The film takes its time going where it goes, but though it never seems in a hurry, there is no sense that it needed to be rushed either. Each of these moments of narrative has its own rhythm, and each beat seems to fit in with the overall rhythmic structure.

Thematically the film covers relatively familiar ground. Characters trapped by angst and obsession gradually confront the source of their discontent, connecting with others as they go. Though it is all pretty predictable, the film treats the material seriously, as do the cast. The result is that it appears believable, at least in context. The relatively subdued and unsensational way in which most of the problems are confronted throughout is thrown into relief by wildly over the top deus-ex-machina action at the climax when Owen Wilson, playing neighbour and lifelong friend of the Tenenbaum family, arrives at the all-important wedding in a most dramatic fashion. The scene gives the film a most unlikely pivot for most of the expected catharsis and resolution, a peculiar paradox which pays off only because of the singular style of the film on the whole.

The Royal Tenenbaums is not a film that everyone will enjoy. Though comic, it is far from knockabout knee-slapping capering, and though dramatic, it is not especially gripping. The surreal tone does push it towards the cerebral, and its pleasures are in appreciating the combination of elements that make it such a distinctive piece of film. There are funny scenes and there is a lot of terrific stuff in here if you have the patience and the predisposition to enjoy it, but the film is not as immediately inviting as many of the more obvious comedies which have found audience of late. Like its predecessor, it seems destined for critical and cult followings rather than massive box office, but it is rewarding and worthwhile and should bear up under repeated viewing.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.