BRIAN: I know Pagoda is probably going to stab me with a pocket knife for being so surprised, but what an artistic leap forward! This is my first viewing of The Royal Tenenbaums and Wes Anderson feels like a completely assured director from the opening frame. Utilizing Alec Baldwin voiceover and Mutato Muzika Orchestra’s cover of “Hey Jude”, he succeeds in showing us the fears and motivations of the main cast while being gut-punchingly emotional and, most importantly, extremely funny. In short, it blows the Rushmore opening montage out of the water.
It’s such a strong beginning that I was a little disappointed when the movie loses steam when it has to re-introduce its characters 22 years later. For all its stylistic strengths, the movie sags a bit beneath the weight of its ensemble instead of flying unburdened into the sky like Mordecai the falcon (did I mention I love that opening?). Gene Hackman is fantastic as the vainglorious patriarch of the Tenenbaum family, even having a name that befits the idea of his own self-worth: Royal. I almost wish that Anderson would’ve focused more on him as the main character trying to reconnect with his estranged family instead of spinning so many emotionally fraught plates in the air.
But before I go too far down that line of thought, what are your initial thoughts, Danielle? How do you think Anderson has developed since Rushmore and do you dig the film’s ensemble cast?
DANIELLE: I completely agree with you on the noticeable improvement in style compared to Rushmore. There are still some elements that were in Bottle Rocket and Rushmore (like closeup shots of notes and people writing) but it’s done much better here. I didn’t see this movie when it was in theaters but remember knowing that it existed because of Ben Stiller. The image of him in that red tracksuit made it all the way to 11-year-old me in small-town Georgia. That says something for this being more “mainstream” than the others. I do think this is the real emergence of the Wes Anderson style and was probably a wild thing to see at the time.
I love the introduction to the characters too. Even the intro credits where each actor stares into the camera as their character is great. The beginning of the movie overall is really strong. It’s clever, funny and cool. The characters are interesting with their unique over-the-top styles and unique brand of “genius.” However, I felt like my interest in them wore off as the movie went on because the plot was thin. This story seems to put the bulk of the focus on the individual characters with their dry one-liners and random flashbacks, but after a while it wasn’t that interesting. For example, Margot is promiscuous and secretive. We learn that at the beginning and continue to see flashbacks and a case file of that information. We don’t need that continued reminder of who she is. We get it, now what about a stronger story for that smoking, fur-jacket-wearing wild child?!
I think you make a good suggestion for the plot. Following Royal as the main character trying to reconnect could have given this story more direction. Gene Hackman is fantastic. I love the scene when he is taking his grandsons out to wreak havoc. It’s sweet and funny.
Speaking of the grandsons, those actors are great. The fact that they are dressed exactly like their dad and talk in a deadpan adult-like manner is pretty funny. In terms of other great performances, I think everyone was good in this. I will say I didn’t love Eli and wish Owen Wilson had found a better use for himself in a movie that he co-wrote. His character just felt like an excuse to add to the ensemble cast. I think all of the characters are interesting but overall the plot could have been stronger.
I’ll stop there for now. What do you think about all of that? Do you feel like for a movie that is so character heavy, his characters are pretty one dimensional?
BRIAN: I like what you said about the image of Ben Stiller in a red tracksuit finding you in a small town. Similar to James Caan appearing in Bottle Rocket or Bill Murray showing up for Rushmore, having Ben Stiller in your movie lends it some credibility. Especially 2001 Ben Stiller. He’d just finished taking a lie detector test for De Niro and flashing an unsuspecting world Blue Steel (Now that I’m on the subject, I really miss a good ol’ Owen Wilson/Ben Stiller buddy comedy. I suppose Zoolander 2 makes a future co-starring venture unlikely but a guy can dream. I digress…). My point is, having Ben Stiller in your early 2000s comedy is going to bring in eyeballs and permeate pop culture.
Which is great, because Wes Anderson is clearly ready for the scrutiny. He gives his insanely talented cast very fun lines of dialogue. Premium examples below:
Gene Hackman’s Royal leaving a funeral: “Come on, let’s shag ass.”
Danny Glover’s Henry to his romantic rival: “I don’t think you’re an asshole, Royal. I just think you’re kind of a son of a bitch.”
Owen Wilson’s Eli describing his latest novel, Old Custer: “Well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is…maybe he didn’t.”
I do think that the packed ensemble results in some pretty one-note characters. After having strong core characters in his first two movies (like Dignan and Max Fischer), I think you’re right to point out how thinly-sketched some of the Tenenbaums are. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot is a terrific example. You’ve already demonstrated that the character feels uninteresting, and I think the underlying reason is that Anderson presents her as an object for characters to yearn for. Since the story keeps her at a distance viewed only by the men in her life, she remains a cipher. If you peel back a single layer of malaise there’s nothing underneath.
But I suppose you could make a similar case for both Richie and Chaz since a theme in the movie is squandered potential. All the Tenenbaum children are crystallized at a specific point in their youth. As you pointed out, all three wear versions of what they wore as children except now they are withered husks on the vine. Without growth, they are all pitiable characters, filled with anxiety, depression, and BB pellets.
But Royal Tenenbaum, now that’s a character! Because Gene Hackman has now retired from acting, this stands as his last great performance (unless you count Welcome to Mooseport, which I’m sure Ray Romano does). He brings such joy and gravitas to a role I really can’t see being played by anyone else. The scene you brought up of him spending time with his grandsons Ari and Uzi (fantastic names) is my absolute favorite sequence in the film. Partly because of the acting, camerawork and writing, but mostly because of Paul Simon. Without “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard”, I can’t imagine the scene would have nearly the same effect.
Which brings me to the music! How do you think the music adds or subtracts from the film, Danielle?
DANIELLE: I love the music. Opening with “Hey Jude” was perfect. I don’t necessarily feel like it adds to the story but it does add to the style of it.
I do want to add to our discussion of characters and note the way that this movie treats its female characters. While there isn’t much in terms of dimension for most of the characters, it was an interesting choice for the focus of both Margot and Etheline to be on their sex/love lives. We see Etheline’s flashback about her life to be about the men who court her and we see Margot’s on her sexual experiences. We don’t see that focus on the men. As you point out, the women are the object of men’s affection (an early scene of adult Margot is a slow-motion shot of wind dreamily blowing her hair as Richie watches) but I do wish there was more to them. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised given that this was written by two men. However, I’m curious to see how Wes’ female characters evolve in his next films.
I will say that I do love the Margot/Richie tent scene where after they’ve both professed their love to each other Margot leaves the tent saying in her deadpan way: “I think we’re just gonna have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that, Richie.”
BRIAN: The Margot/Richie relationship is devastating. Richie is constantly drinking Bloody Marys in the movie, as if his life is a perpetual hangover and Margot oozes depression throughout. The only time either character feels warmth or solace is when they’re with each other. The darkest scene in the movie, where Richie shaves his hair and attempts suicide is tonally distinct and shot underneath a blinking flourescent light. Compare that lighting to the tent scene which has a warm, inviting golden hue because of the light shining through the tent’s material. It’s a brief moment of happiness where neither character has to be “secretly in love” with the other.
It’s a slight tangent but I recently watched The Goldfinch in theaters. Among that movie’s fantastic cast is Luke Wilson who, like in Tenenbaums, gets to play against type. In Goldfinch, he plays an alcoholic degenerate father to the main character and it might be the nastiest role I’ve seen him play. It’s good to see that, in the two decades since he started working with Anderson, he still gets to stretch as an actor.
But back to the director who, in this movie, has a surprising amount of world-building. The cutaways, flashbacks, and props certainly lend themselves to it. For instance, I noticed that the Charlie Rose-esque character (played by Larry Pine) that interviews Eli Cash shows up later in the movie (in a sleazily prescient shot) giving Margot the ol’ crusty paw in her background file. However, the Tenenbaum house on Archer Avenue is a world-building treasure trove. The ever-present dalmatian mice and the paintings of Margot made by Richie (and in real life by Wes’ brother, Eric Chase Anderson) create such a vivid universe that it’s no wonder such a sprawling, talented cast agreed to work on the movie for scale.
And as our sprawling, talented conversation comes to a close, is there anything else you’d like to bring up, Danielle? Any favorite non-Tenenbaum characters or complicated tracking shots you want to talk about? Kumar Pallana’s Pagoda and the long take at the end of the movie with the fire truck are my favorites.
DANIELLE: The Margot/Richie scene is really interesting because there’s a light of hope for those two characters who are dealing with their own demons. I will say that the attempted suicide scene caught me off guard even having seen this. As you mentioned, the way it was shot felt like it was from a totally different movie. It’s a brief divergence from the whimsical world to demonstrate the reality of the characters’ dark situations and to make the love between Margot and Richie that much sweeter.
There’s really a lot happening in the movie that warrants another watch to catch interesting background items. You mentioned the dalmatian mice (which are everywhere) but I didn’t notice them during my first viewing. As for favorite non-Tenenbaums, I actually want to give a shout-out to Dudley, Bill Murray’s student. While I did not love Murray’s character in relation to Margot, I did like the scenes with him and his patient. This is a great example of a Wes Anderson-style comedic interaction:
Raleigh: [Into tape recorder, softly] Dudley suffers from a rare disorder combining symptoms of amnesia, dyslexia, and color-blindness, with a highly acute sense of hearing.
Dudley: [from adjoining room] I’m not color blind, am I?
Raleigh: I’m afraid you are.
This whole movie does a great job at setting up Wes Anderson as that “hipster” director. It has everything stylistically – the music, costumes, all-star cast, etc. I was impressed by the attention to detail of every aspect of this movie.
BRIAN: Dudley truly is an example for us all. I’m not sure if I possess the patience to allow Bill Murray to whisper insults at me from an adjoining room for months at a time. Maybe if I got to be on the cover of a best-seller…
Film history looks on The Royal Tenenbaums as Wes Anderson’s first big box office success. It made a little over $70 million on a $20 million budget, thus guaranteeing that he gets to make at least a couple more movies. It’s also his first movie to earn an Oscar nomination (for Best Original Screenplay). At the time I’m writing this, he’s never won an Oscar, but I’ll save my frustration on that front for a later entry detailing the misadventures of a concierge and his lobby boy.
The point is, Tenenbaums is Wes Anderson’s first film that’s both a financial and critical success. I think we’re on the same page that, although the cast is great, most of the actors have assembled for less-than-three-dimensional roles. But make no mistake, the soundtrack is cool, the production design is impeccable and the dialogue perfectly illustrates how well families don’t communicate with each other.
For our next feature, you may want to put on some scuba gear and connect with some long-lost family members, Danielle, because we’re getting ready to set sail and live the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
And as always…the Sarris Wheel spins on!
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Danielle and Brian have been frenemies since their college years. Although Danielle is burning the midnight oil in Chicago next to Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and Brian is experiencing delusions of grandeur in Los Angeles next to giant white letters, The Sarris Wheel has reunited them at last.
Kick back with Danielle at her blog, Wild Night In.