11) The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Directed by Wes Anderson
Written by Wes Anderson & Owen Wilson
Starring: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson & Bill Murray
Don’t even say it.
Look, I know exactly what you’re thinking. You’re thinking
“Good golly, it’s been a while since a Top 20 Movies post…” “Of course this made your list, Justin. You would like Wes Anderson, wouldn’t you?” And maybe you’re right — liking Anderson’s films has become something of a film-fan cliché. Nowadays I find it near impossible to mention Anderson without someone bringing up Stuff White People Like, though maybe I just talk about Wes Anderson with the wrong people.
I admit that the man’s style can be repetitive, and it’s not for everyone. I admit that (other than Fantastic Mr. Fox, which I have not yet seen) most of his films are shades of the same story. At heart, they are stories about broken men with daddy issues, punctuated by soft pastels, tight close-ups and slow-motion sequences set to folk rock soundtracks. I admit all of these things. But I will not apologize, because this is a great film by any measure. If all of his subsequent films have tried to emulate it, they have only done so in pursuit of perfection.
The Royal Tenenbaums is at times an effective drama, other times an amusing comedy, but always a literary film. Not in the sense that it’s full of intellectual dialogue, or visually rich with poetic device, either. It is literally a book on film.
The very first shot of the film is that book being checked out of a library by the bony fingers of Anderson himself. Those of you keeping score at home may have noticed the cover of that book is an exact drawing of the title card that follows this sequence (see above, der). From the chaptered story breaks to the textbook-like reference figure cutaways, to Alec Baldwin’s encyclopedic narration, the tone is consistent throughout. And it’s not a gimmick — it serves the story and its characters. This is a film where nearly every character has either written a book (or a play, or an article), or had one written about them. All but one: Royal (Hackman). The film is his book.
Royal: Everyone’s against me.
Pagoda: It’s your fault, man.
Royal: Yeah, I know. But dammit, I want this family to love me!
Part of what makes it Anderson’s best is that, in a canon of films defined by emotionally fractured children, this time the father has the focus. The kids are important too, of course, but ensemble cast be damned, this is Gene Hackman’s movie through and through. The man is a legend, and if this is his last best effort, he went out on top (so long as we all pretend Welcome To Mooseport never happened). If perfect characters are boring characters, then Royal Tenenbaum is one fascinating man.
Royal is an awful person. An absentee father, a thief, a liar, a racist, a cheat, selfish, outspoken, insensitive, just a real asshole. His only friend is the elevator man at the hotel he lives in. But there’s honesty in his flaws. They make him relatable. Much like Kenny Powers in HBO’s Eastbound & Down, there is something so compelling about rooting for the scoundrel. Their terrible behaviour is hugely entertaining, and you pull for them to change. For all his faults, Royal is still a very likeable man. If you can make it through this clip without so much as grinning, I’m not sure we can be friends:
Twenty-two years removed from the greatness of their childhood, the prodigious Tenenbaum children are each stuck in personal ruts, spinning in circles. Chas (Stiller) has lost his wife in a plane crash, and teeters on the edge of a nervous breakdown as he cares for their two sons on his own. Margot (Paltrow) is locked in a loveless marriage to neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Murray), and hasn’t written a play since their wedding. Richie (Luke Wilson), heartbroken and confused, has exiled himself at sea, travelling the world on an ocean-liner. They return home shattered. Under the same roof again for the first time in decades, only Royal’s blunt truths can right the ship.
I’m very sorry for your loss. Your mother was a terribly attractive woman.
Hackman owns the movie, dominating every scene, but the performances are all quite good. Stiller taps into that same manic aggressive insecurity that powers most of his performances, but it’s cased in a story that suits his character and actually uses that persona for dramatic impact. Paltrow is the definition of apathy, but her low-energy glibness is quite funny when it needs to be. Both Wilsons play it serious, and will likely never be better than they are here. Though Owen has a number of laugh-out-loud moments, they only work because he’s fully committed to the absurdity of his character. Luke, buried beneath a mountain of hair, gives Richie a hidden sadness that hits home.
The movie struck me as a moving family drama at first glance, but it gets funnier every time I see it. Most of the comedy stems from two sources: Royal’s limitless arrogance, and the subject of Raleigh’s latest study — a hopelessly inept boy named Dudley. Murray has several hilarious reaction shots and Dudley’s obliviousness in the middle of key dramatic moments is perfect comic relief.
Lastly, the cinematography is wonderful. Anderson is a master of the long-take, allowing several scenes to just run continuously through clever camera movement. I had it pounded into my brain this semester that you can not properly film a scene without matched action cut-ins, close-ups on faces and alternating camera angles. “You have to give the audience what they want.” It’s just not true. Sustained takes may require some key camera pans here and there, but they let the characters breathe and the performances feel more organic. As good as the actors are on their own, it’s these subtle style choices that really showcase their skill.
Personally, I think I prefer The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which is a weird thing to say when this makes the list and Aquatic does not. It’s just a much funnier film and the ending always hits me like a ton of bricks. But by every metric, this is a better made film. It’s a quintessential New York movie, both in setting and photography, but also in its ironic intellectual tone. Revisiting the film having just spent time in Manhattan’s Lower Eastside, I appreciated it that much more.
Besides, Zissou and his odd-ball crew are nothing if not shades of the eccentric Tenenbaums. Full marks must go to the originator.