Rated R for language, mild violence, and out-of-left-field sporadic nudity. Royal Tenenbaum is also a racist who enjoys dog fighting. While neither racism nor dogfighting is glorified, it also is occasionally used for laughs. I lean with Wes Anderson with the choices made here because it is done to make Royal look like a scoundrel and I have to believe that Anderson made those choices to slightly vilify him. But again, I'm not the party being harmed, so I wouldn't stake my life on that bet either. It should also be clear that there is a very graphic suicide attempt in the movie. Rated R.
DIRECTOR: Wes Anderson
Christmas and Christmas break make it very hard to keep to one's schedule. It makes me look like a real jerk to put a pause on Christmas related events to say that I NEED to write. No, we had guests over. I know that it is a good habit to have, writing every day. But family takes precedence. Also, we're apparently going to Disney World next week, so be ready for another dry spell, which is a bummer because I was hoping to start the New Year with a bunch of reviews and exercise under my belt. Regardless.
I think I'm calling it: The Royal Tenenbaums is my favorite Wes Anderson movie. I'm terrified to look at what I've written for the other films he's made. I know that I allude to the fact that The Royal Tenenbaums used to be my favorite Wes Anderson movie. But I can say with absolute confidence that it actually is my favorite. I used to claim Bottle Rocket as well, but that was really for street cred. I acknowledge and embrace my own hypocrisy.
While Rushmore fans will probably fight me to the death, I honestly believe that The Royal Tenenbaums is both a culmination of Wes finding his voice and his formula while presenting an earnest and heartwarming film. My argument presupposes that Bottle Rocket is a student film. It has very little budget and feels far more experimental. There's a lot of birthing pains with that movie. The Rushmore-ites probably would say that it took his sophomore effort to really nail what he was trying to do. I can't deny that he learns a lot on Rushmore. But Rushmore really feels like a small film compared to The Royal Tenenbaums. Rushmore's comparatively small cast feels like the warm up to what would ultimately be The Royal Tenenbaums. There's so much going on with Tenenbaums that he kind of uses Tenenbaums as a pace car and a template for his other films.
I imagine that watching Tenenbaums after his other movies probably would hide some of the glory that the movie really has. It's because the other movies kind of copy what is going on here. I'm going to tell the good word of Wes Anderson to anyone who will listen. He's Indie Hipster Film Nerdery 101. But I also know that Martin Scorsese's anti-Marvel diatribe about directors doing new things all of the time is garbage because he cites Wes Anderson in the list of auteurs who push the envelope with every movie that they make. Yeah, they're a little different from each other. I completely adored Isle of Dogs. But that one was one of the few examples where he changed up the formula a little bit. Tenenbaums wrote the rules on how to make a Wes Anderson movie.
Please understand, there are exceptions that prove the rule here. I know that this is not exactly a paint-by-numbers guide to making a Wes Anderson vehicle. Rushmore technically gets the prize for inverting the adult / child dynamic, so I can't give all the glory to Tenenbaums. But Tenenbaums really uses that as a foundation. Ari and Uzi contrasted with Chaz is a lot of the story. Also, Royal's immaturity throughout the film, despite the fact that he was a lawyer. But we see the large cast maintaining the low energy affect through most of his films. The movie has Gene Hackman, for goodness sakes! I don't even know how they convinced him to show up, let alone act like this. There's no performance for Hackman like this. He's being Hackman, in a weird way. But also, completely in a weird Anderson-esque cadence. It's great. Anjelica Huston would go on to reprise this role again in The Life Aquatic, which feels like a cop out that I don't care about. The Wilson brothers made their names on Anderson vehicles, so that doesn't really count. Bill Murray acts as support for the film, but is doing something very different than even what he did in Rushmore. But one actor who really nails the whole bit and probably doesn't get credit for it is Danny Glover as Henry Sherman.
It doesn't feel like Anderson is copying himself yet. He's unafraid to take chances and embrace the silliness of this world. The interior of the Tenenbaum residence is like anything that reality could really offer. This heightened reality doesn't exist for the whole of the film. It's kind of refreshing seeing Anderson seeing the cracks of his own aesthetics. There is one scene in the movie that really demonstrates Anderson's understanding of the limitations of his setting. When Margot goes to find her real family, there is no sense of irony there. That actually makes the punchline work. Anderson almost laughs at himself when he has this fur-bedecked 12-year-old smoking a cigarette while she is meant to be focusing on keeping her finger out of the way of her family's axe. There's no twee element to the secondary family. While we are laughing at the ironic aesthetic of Anderson's world, he too is laughing with us. That doesn't really show up with things like Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited.
I asked why Hackman would agree to make this movie, especially considering that it came right before his retirement. The reason has to be the subject matter. I've heard how Bill Murray kind of just stumbled into the world of Wes Anderson. But The Royal Tenenbaums reads kind of like an R-rated children's story. Royal Tenenbaum makes the story special. His change is so striking that the movie doesn't need the curtains that make it great. Someone could take the script by Wes Anderson and probably a Coppola and make it into a decent movie with the same cast. Sure, it wouldn't be as fun. This movie is so fun that I can't stress that enough. But the real heart comes from Gene Hackman's Royal. There's a line in the movie, immediately after Royal reveals that he isn't actually dying, where Alec Baldwin's narrator stresses that Royal believed that he had the best week of his life by accident. That moment is so telling. Because I'm a sucker for A Christmas Carol, Tenenbaums really hits me in the feels.
Perhaps it is my obsession with father stories. I'm all screwed up on that front, so please bear with me. I know that Scrooge isn't a father. But he is this guy who doesn't really see the wonderful things in front of him. By being emotionally invested in this story, by the way, kind of ruins it. I wouldn't recommend getting this vulnerable with the piece until the Richie scene. Royal has it all at the beginning of the story. I want to say that he isn't a bad guy because the movie really stresses that he's a rascal more than a monster. But Royal does cheat on Ethel. He is a bad guy. But that moment when he realizes that his family is what always mattered, it doesn't change Royal superficially. He's still kind of a punk and kind of a rascal. It's just that what matters does change.
Anderson also crushes it with his soundtrack on this one. I'm not sure which soundtrack I like better: Tenenbaums or Life Aquatic. Life Aquatic has the advantage of being a gimmicky soundtrack. But almost every single song in this movie tells a tale. It is not in the movie because it's a good song, but because it is a good song that makes the movie better. The music seems tailored for the footage. It's spectacular. Honestly, I can't think of a better montage sequence than "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" and most of it is because of how good the song matches the fun of that sequence. It nails it.
Before I close this up, I want to talk about Richie for a second. As I should, I get uncomfortable with Richie's suicide attempt. It is very intense. The movie is twee and removed from reality for a lot of it. Royal, oddly enough, might be the most grounded character of the film because he exhibits elements of normality. But it is Richie's suicide attempt that makes the stakes of the film real. Raleigh is this guy carrying this emotional burden through the movie, but it is funny to laugh at how Margot treats him. It's meant to be a joke. Richie's obsession with his sister is used for laughs at times, paralleling George Michael's obsession with Maebe on Arrested Development. But when we see him almost kill himself, it changes the tone of all of the previous scenes. I feel guilty for laughing when he punches out a plate glass window. Royal's cruelty to the children also gains some resonance. Richie, after all, is the one who was loved more than the others and he still breaks down due to his father's behavior. I mentioned that Anderson likes to invert the personalities of children and adults. But the suicide shows the burden of children having to grow up too quickly.
I adore this movie. There's a lot to unpack. I've been trying to keep these things way more focused, but Tenenbaums has too much to break down to keep it completely cohesive. Regardless, I'm stoked that I can confirm that my favorite Anderson movie is still my favorite.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.