#49 — The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001).
For all the precision that Wes Anderson brings to his filmmaking–the carefully constructed shots, the pristine cinematography, the merging of imagery with the rock’n’roll soundtrack so complete that it feels like the movie itself is breathing in time with each song’s backbeat–it is the ungainly sprawl of The Royal Tenenbaums that impresses most. Anderson has been upfront about drawing upon the works of J.D. Salinger, particularly those involving the Glass family, for this film, and it indeed comes across as a wildly inventive, overstuffed novel. Set in a arch, Bohemian, colorful New York City that would seem nostalgic if it bore any plausible resemblance to a world that existed outside of the imagination. Instead, it is nostalgic for the New York one might have conjured up in the imagination at some point in the past: sun-dappled and gritty, literate and cantankerous, urban and urbane. Anderson’s film longs for the tilted, lovely world with an earnestness that is endearing. It’s as if the entire film is the celebrity author character played by Owen Wilson, looking at the Tenenbaum family and their environs with a palpable ache, an insatiable desire to be immersed in all their romantic, wounded possibility.
The primary story of The Royal Tenenbaums focuses on the attempts of the deeply flawed patriarch to reconcile with the family he abandoned long ago. The soul of the movie, though, resides with the three Tenenbaum children. Each was a child prodigy of some sort, and each crashed after enormous initial success. In their forlorn drifting Anderson captures something poignant. What happens to those who peak early? When precocious achievement fades into memory, leaving only unfulfilled promise? That’s true of this trio, but it’s a quality that is present throughout the film, with each character standing as a sort of worn copy of their more prosperous selves from some point in the past. Just because you’re dangerous enough to have a price on your head in Calcutta doesn’t mean you won’t wind up a discarded citizen, tossed out of a hotel and pleading your relatives for reentry into their lives.
Gene Hackman plays the character who faces that fate, the charming, crafty, irredeemable, lovable Royal Tenenbaum. I mean it as about as grand of a compliment as I can bestow to note that his performance here stands on par with his very different work as Harry Caul in The Conversation and Rupert Anderson in Mississippi Burning. In some respects, Hackman’s earthy approach, which always ground his characters in something deeply, recognizably human, seems, on the surface, a problematic match with Anderson’s quirkier stylings. Instead, it winds up being a mutually beneficial collaboration, causing Hackman to stretch himself out a bit, finding new reservoirs of unpredictability. Hackman always brings a certain amount of authority to his roles. That authority is tempered and actually enlivened by the hints that there’s a certain degree of phoniness to it. Royal Tenenbaum is always playing roles–dying man, lovelorn husband, doting father–so it makes sense that the moments he’s most energized, most free are those when his role-playing is at its most transparent: bounding around the neighborhood with his newly acquainted grandsons, careening around in go-karts, aggressively jaywalking, hanging off a garbage truck as it rolls down the street.
Anderson and his film, meanwhile, benefit by the assurance of Hackman’s work. It never spins into mere whimsy–overcome by pink walls and matching red track suits–in part because Hackman doggedly keeps it tethered to the real through his conviction to the role. His Royal Tenenbaum is a sly huckster, but remains fully recognizable as a man grasping for a better ending. His scheme transforms into something more genuine. The bits of redemption and glimmers of personal fulfillment, perhaps reached inadvertently and unwittingly, feel fully earned. The other actors noticeably step up their games, especially when they’re in a scene with Hackman. He winds up being as potent and influencing of a force as an actor as Royal is as a character.
The film is moving, sometimes in an almost casual, disarming way. Ben Stiller may never have a better, more honest moment on film then the beat here when he lets a hard veneer of emotional self-defense fall away to reveal pure vulnerability in front of his father, finally forgiven, in no small part because he is finally needed. Maybe that reveals part of the message of Anderson’s film. The misfits, the offbeat, the challenging, the discarded all have a place of value in this world because, at some point in time, each of them will be exactly who someone else needs. It’s a kind thought, artfully conveyed by a generous film.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)