Undeniably, the Indie Film King is Quentin Tarintino. While some, like Kevin Smith and Rian Johnson and, contrary to my opinion of him, Darren Aronofsky, have attempted to steal that title, only one director has ever came close: Wes Anderson. After two commercial flops that had strong cult followings and the love of nearly every film critic, he finally made that success that won both audiences and critics (it helped that his earlier film, “Rushmore”, found a large audience on video and probably made it’s budget back after the fact). “The Royal Tenenbaums” seemed like the film that would change the face of Indie Filmmaking in a way not seen since “Pulp Fiction”. It didn’t have the same effect, but you can’t deny Anderson the influence he had on indie comedies in the 2000s.
The Tenenbaums are a family with three child prodigies: Chas, who became a successful businessman as a child, Margot, the adopted daughter who won a grant for a play she wrote in ninth grade, and Richie, who went pro at tennis as a kid and loved to paint. The film opens with the father, Royal, announcing that he’s divorcing his wife, Etheline. As adults, the children are plagued by failure: Chas has two sons and a dead wife, becoming overprotective, Richie retired from tennis after a melt-down on court and has been spending the intervening years traveling abroad on a cruise, and Margot is married to a neurologist from whom she hides her smoking and past from, as well as her not having written a play in years. When Royal is kicked out of the hotel he was staying in and hears that Etheline is going to marry their attorney, he goes to the family’s home, where all three children have returned to, claiming (falsely) to be dying of cancer.
Wes Anderson and his co-writer, Owen Wilson (yes, that Owen Wilson), prove here, just like in “Rushmore”, that they can portray failure effectively. The strength of the script is that every character is a failure. Even the only successful character, Eli Cash, is a drug user and is obsessed with wanting to become a Tenenbaum. That portrayal of failure is important, since the humor comes from the results of them living with it. The humor is pitch-black, since the point is that everyone is miserable. The humor won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a good recommendation for fans of “Arrested Development”.
The actors are, of course, all quirky. Royal is played by Gene Hackman, who acts as mean and absent mindedly as is called for. Etheline is played by Anjelica Huston, who portrays her as a stern mother figure, or at least as much as the Tenenbaums can expect. Ben Stiller is Chas, who seems like the prototype for Marlin the Clownfish. Gwyneth Paltrow is Margot, who acts as distant and cold as a pretentious playwright, I’m assuming, is. Her husband is played by Wes Anderson’s good luck charm, Bill Murray, who seem like Herman Blume but more muted. Richie is Luke Wilson, who is incredibly naive and loyal to Royal (that was unintentional). And Owen is Eli, who gets to act like a manic madman.
This is not “Rushmore” part two. This is a film with illusions of grandeur. The film works because it understands the characters: the sense of failure. Getting Alec Baldwin to narrate just create another layer on the failure cake: especially watching today (who better to say that someone failed Mr. don’t-take-your-phone-out-on-the-plane-or-shout-on-the-phone-at-people himself?). People who don’t like the film are either people who don’t like Wes Anderson or people who find the film to dark for their tastes. Honestly, it’s not the best introduction to Wes Anderson, but it is among his strongest works because it shows his trademarks and plays with them in interesting ways. For an easier introduction, see “Fantastic Mr. Fox” or “Rushmore”, or “Moonrise Kingdom”. For the rest of us, we have this, a grand piece on failure.
Directed by Wes Anderson
Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover, Bill Murray