I have seen countless films about family and the dysfunction that arises when relationships and personalities are mismatched. Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale was a recently seen example of a film that captures the honesty of parental dysfunction and separation. Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums may not even show half of that honesty, but it does something much more difficult. It blends in the quirkiness and hilarity of a typical Anderson film and mixes it with a story that is fuelled by genuine emotional problems and vulnerability that none of Anderson’s films have been able to achieve.
The film acts as the dawn of Wes Anderson’s signature style, where its large cast of characters are accompanied by a star-studded ensemble cast, production and technical designs that shape the director’s visionary world, and a premise that either attempts to be ambitious in its storytelling or its themes. With each film, starting from his debut, he has gained much more confidence in achieving his true vision; showing less fear in incorporating unorthodox influences in shaping the characters and their world. The Royal Tenenbaums may not be Anderson’s most inspiring of works, as compared to The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom, this film is quite tame; but as I have said neither of his films have achieved the emotional grandiose that this film was able to bring. Watching not only Wes, but also Owen Wilson grow as a writer from Bottle Rocket was an amazing journey; when both collaborate, they create ambitious stories with a sense of balance. It’s like as if Wilson keeps Anderson in track and ensures that the characters are given the same amount of respect as the world and tone that he is creating. Anderson’s last two films, Moonrise and Budapest, have been examples of escapist films that do not actually carry a hefty amount of characterisation, or at least Anderson’s prominent facade has covered them to the point where we end up forgetting that we are watching humans and not cartoon characters.
The Royal Tenenbaums starts off by giving the audience a brief history of the family, showing their successes and pitfalls. It shows at the end of this recount, each of the family members’ lives 22 years later, exposing the emotional damage that characters carry, which many are rooted from the fracture of their parents’ marriage. Each family member resents their father, Royal, due to the criticising and self-absorbed nature of his personality; I immediately found this relatable as I suffer circumstances in my daily life, but not to the extent that Anderson has given to his characters. The film’s driving moment shortly comes with Royal stating to his wife, Etheline, that he is “dying” in a matter of weeks and that he needs to be with his family again during this process. I found this premise to be immediately empathetic as I feel strong towards the idea of a man trying to keep or reunite his family together, regardless of the flaws that he inherently carries. It sounds so serious on the way I describe it, but in actuality, Anderson has made quite a hilarious film with its emotional storyline. I simply chose to acknowledge the serious emotional depth that the director has given to the story, as it is something I am extremely fond of.
The film does not place all of its eggs on one basket of course, the film also spends an equal amount of time fleshing out each member of the cast, especially in regards to Royal’s three children; Chas, Margot and Richie. There are subplots that linger behind the core storyline, that enrich the personalities of its characters. Margot in particular was the most fascinating, with Anderson giving a brief segments midway in the film that describes an exhaustive history of her troubled adventures, developed vices and sexual partners. It also helps that her relationship with her father is the most complex and most damaged, out of the three; there were actually multiple moments where I cannot help but sympathise for her instead of Royal, despite him being the film’s central protagonist. Richie’s character is the film’s most grounded character, there is very little about him that we could actually say is quirky, aside from maybe his romantic relationship and choice of subjects for painting. His character provides the darkest elements of the film, and without that contribution to the story, this film wouldn’t have any dire stakes that could actually further damage the foundations of the family. There is a scene about an hour into the film, where he does something drastic; that genuinely one of the scariest moments I have ever seen in a film, something about it felt so real and it contrasts so heavily with its mostly chirpy tone and atmosphere. Chas on the other hand is Anderson’s more typical of characters, featuring a difficult father-son relationship that is also inherent in all of Anderson’s other films; but at least here, he intertwines it with his relationship to other members of the family, rather than it standing on its own.
Characters outside the core family are mainly used as added members in pushing the film’s complications, but thankfully Anderson and Wilson do not write these characters in a shallow, one-dimensional note, they actually feel fleshed out and through that we are able to care about their own problems, even just for a little.
The film overall acts as a metaphor of the famous families that live among us, with the general public thinking that they live a peaceful, happy, and wonderful life, and people cannot help but feel envious towards them. True, these people did gain success from their talented abilities, but they only developed these abilities due to the suffering they had to endure. Artists and entrepreneurs only finds success when their emotional and psychological foundations are rocky; they are determined to smooth out the groundwork through their financial and artistic profits, but in reality they only end up acting as facades and that these type of issues could only be remedied when properly confronted; and all it takes is one person from that family to do something about it.
The Royal Tenenbaums carry the traditional camera work that is present in his previous film, Rushmore; but now it is more prominent than before, with its use of wide lenses, fast pull-ins and pull-outs, zipping tilts and pans, and shots that are even more symmetrical. These are the core visual trademarks of a Wes Anderson/Robert Yeoman film, without these that essence would be lost and the humour that they try to create would most likely not be as effective. Mark Mothersbaugh comes back to do the score once again, and this time along with Anderson’s overall vision, it has grown from his previous film. With each film, it seems that his score becomes more sophisticated in order to keep up with Anderson and Wilson’s ambitious stories and characters. He was able to bring that emotional impact into his music that is needed in order to sell the relationships and vulnerabilities of its characters. The soundtrack also has gone through some improvements, also showing a sense of sophistication to the styles and popularity to Anderson’s choices. The soundtrack now incorporates legendary artists like The Clash, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, but what truly stood out was the inclusion of Nico; whom which I have personal attachments with due to her debut solo album and her collaboration with one of my favourite bands of all time The Velvet Underground. Nico songs like These Days and Fairest of the Seasons were used so well, elevating the scene’s emotional ambiance and providing a sense of elegance to the visuals.
Like with any Wes Anderson film, the cast does a wonderful job in inhabiting their characters; and whilst under Anderson’s direction, we are able to see sides of these actors that we never thought existed. Who knew Gene Hackman and Gwyneth Paltrow would work so well in an Anderson film? Speaking of Hackman, he was a damn revelation in this film. It showed another side of the actor that I was not familiar with; I have always connected him with his legendary dark, gritty and serious roles like in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. Though the actor has been seen in light works including The Birdcage and Superman, but they don’t even come close to what he has brought as Royal Tenenbaum. I could have this review run for another nine paragraphs if you want me to dissect each and every other cast member in this film, but that would have been unnecessary as I have similar feelings towards all of them. Each actor or actresses brings so much to their performances, despite the light and comedic nature of their roles.
The Royal Tenenbaums is a one of a kind film for writers Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, exposing more of emotion and pain into their characters, elevating them from the cartoon tendencies that Anderson normally brings to his films. Very few capture the essence of the drama in family dysfunction, even fewer do it with the sense of artistry that Wes Anderson brings to the film.