Tuesday, December 25, 2012

In The Winter Of His 35th Year

My viewing recently of Wes Anderson's latest film Moonrise Kingdom reminded me that I'm overdue to review some of his older work.

Anderson's second film, Rushmore (1998) earned him critical acclaim and put him on the filmmaker's map. It's been years since I've seen that film, and it is also on my list to revisit. But today's film was Anderson's follow-up to Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).

Tenenbaums has long been on my list of favorite films, and I'm surprised to find that it's been a couple years since I've seen it. As I mentioned in my review of Moonrise Kingdom,  Wes Anderson's work has always been a hit-or-miss proposition for me. It's not even that, really; rather, it feels to me that he's trying again and again to tell a single story, or maybe to use multiple stories to convey some seminal thing. The films after Tenenbaums--The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom--seem infused with the same unique, quirky view of life. But to me none of them seem to gel as well as Tenenbaums.

On a script by Anderson and Owen Wilson, The Royal Tenenbaums tells a tightly-drawn story of the unique and slightly chaotic Tenenbaum family. The film begins with a quick overview of the family's past, a combination of short scenarios and voiceover narration (by Alec Baldwin). Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) separates from his wife Etheline (an anthropologist and author, played by Anjelica Huston), leaving her to raise her three brilliant pre-teen children: Ritchie (tennis phenom), Margot (adopted; playwright) and Chas (business whiz). The kids all show their brilliance at a very young age, and Etheline showcases the kids--and their education and upbringing--by writing the book Family of Geniuses. After this short and densely-packed overview, we are in the present day. Royal has had little or no contact with anyone for some years, and all the kids, now adults, are stagnant, coasting on their early promise. Royal has lived since the separation at the Lindbergh Palace hotel, and when he gets kicked out (for lack of payment), he conspires to move back into the house on Archer Avenue, feigning cancer to get his foot in the door. This event aligns with the implosion in a couple of the kids' personal lives such that the entire family finds itself back under the same roof 20 years after Royal left.

But life is messy. Etheline is being courted by her accountant, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover)--a development that Royal inexplicably sees as an encroachment on his turf--and the kids' relationships with their dad are complicated. Chas (Ben Stiller), a paranoid and tightly-wound widower, dislikes and distrusts his father and seeks to keep Royal from having contact with (and influence over) his grandchildren; Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) feels she has always been kept at arm's length by Royal (who always introduced her as "my adopted daughter") and is now reluctant to giving much of herself to Royal after so many absent years; and Ritchie (Luke Wilson) is gentle and understanding and is eager to forgive--Royal and everybody else--and reconcile by whatever means. While none of these characters seems especially sympathetic on the page, they are a ragtag bunch that I find it impossible not to love.

Though he has no more screen time than any other character (and less than some), it's appropriate that the film is named for Royal Tenenbaum. It's really a lovely role for Gene Hackman; his transformation from something of a power tool to an empathetic human being is often in the background but really forms the spine of the film. Never the worst of fellows, one of life's curveballs puts Royal out on his kiester, and this misfortune is the impetus for him to reexamine a lot of stuff from his past. At one point after spending a week with his kids and grandkids he says "This last week has been probably the best week of my life," after which the narrator says "Immediately after saying this Royal realized that it was true." From a starting point of just trying to keep from being homeless, Royal eventually embarks in earnest on mending his relationships with his family and living an upstanding life.

All this plays out with the quirky music and strange color palette and gently humorous script that characterize most Wes Anderson films. But it all comes together here to create something greater than the sum of its parts. It's a character-driven story, and even though there are too many characters for any of them to possibly get much screen time, the characters are drawn with almost comic boldness and we feel like we kind of know and understand them. Even the ancillary characters are wonderfully drawn: Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), an author and drug addict, a lifelong friend of Ritchie and sometime lover of Margot; Pagoda, the Tenenbaums' Indian house servant and Royal's source of inside information about the family; Dusty, the elevator operator at the Lindbergh Palace Hotel and friend to Royal. We don't see enough of anybody for their quirks to become insufferable, and it is the slight excess that imprints the characters on our minds. (Also, this is one of those rare times where I feel the use of music to tell us what to feel actually works, since there is too much to the story for us to be able to get where we need to be without help. Anderson's choice of music seems maybe a bit self-conscious, but it works.)

I've read some criticism that the film is too "precious," which is perhaps what I felt about The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom. But, again, I think Anderson treads the line finely here. It's a measure of his talent and his heart that he can tell a funny story where no one is scapegoated, a story full of flawed people where no one is really the bad guy. We like these people because Anderson clearly likes them.

Whatever the recipe, it works: the result is that we are drawn into what might easily have been a mess of semi-connected stuff. And the various characterizations--Royal, Margot, Etheline, Chaz, Eli, Ritchie, Pagoda, Henry--are really delightful to watch. 

Grade: A-

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