"Dammit, I want this family to love me."—Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman)
Once upon a time, there were two opposing forces, Royal and Etheline Tenenbaum. He was wild and puckish, with the spirit of a child; she was proper and polished. Together they raised a family of geniuses. But these mercurial children were frustrated and self-destructive, because genius is a complicated affair.
Once upon a time, there were two opposing forces, Disney and Criterion. One was often lost, hoping to recapture its childhood but usually spending its energy in fruitless pursuits. The other gained a reputation preserving the proper classics of previous eras. Together, they raised a contemporary masterpiece, with hints of the great films of the past, but with a contemporary wit. This artistic child, Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums was destined for a happier fate than its eponymous family.
A specter haunts us—the specter of genius. If in one sense, genius is defined as one's special ability, an intrinsic quality, it might also be defined as an external power (like a magical genie) that follows us. Genius might be a thing separable from our selves. Perhaps it might be a commodity to be traded.
Social philosopher Alvin Gouldner, in his critique of Marx, offers a new social class: the intellectual. The intellectual class traffics in cultural capital, the power of thought rather than money. It is a currency we might call (though Gouldner never does) "genius." If so, then genius, like any capital, is ephemeral, an attempt to order and define our personal identities and our social interactions. One might be called a genius one moment, then have that status taken away. In both cases, the specter of genius looms over us, half-present.
Take, for instance, the Tenenbaums. Each is burdened by a different specter. For Chas (Ben Stiller), talent at business has isolated him, made him rigid and unyielding to the point where trauma (the death of his wife in a plane crash) sends him into a paranoid spiral. He refuses to trust any situation he cannot control, and any individual who smacks of disorder. For Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), artistic success as a playwright, communicating to the outside world, failed to compensate for her uncertainty about her own identity. Reminded constantly of her outsider status (she was adopted), she puffs cigarettes and cheats on her husband (Bill Murray) as a means of proving that she is in control of her own destiny. Richie (Luke Wilson), the tennis player, has surrendered public accolades because he is wracked with guilt over his desire for Margot. All the Tenenbaum progeny are a mess: they were all adults too quickly and never learned to be children.
This is a family that needs a visit from Peter Pan. So enter Royal Tenenbaum, the father who never grew up. Actually, one might trace the fall of the Tenenbaum "geniuses" to the moment when the proper and graceful Etheline (Anjelica Huston) separates from the family patriarch Royal (Gene Hackman). No wonder: Royal is a force for chaos. Tactless, conniving, even a little racist, Royal Tenenbaum seems like a poor match for such an eminent family. Etheline does not seem to need him; more so when she pairs up with the equally dry and repressed Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), who seems like a nice enough guy, if lacking in color.
Royal is all color. Riding in via "Gypsy Cab" (a sign of his wandering nature), he offers to teach the family "recklessness." In turn, he wants acceptance, the comfort and order of returning to the fold. Ultimately, the family turns to one another even as it flies apart. Genius requires a balancing act: order and chaos in tension. Without Royal, the family stagnates, as any closed system falls prey to entropy. With Royal, the family is unpredictable, fluid. And even Royal must learn to temper himself to survive until the end.
When I first heard the title The Royal Tenenbaums, I expected that Wes Anderson, playing with literature as his sophomore effort Rushmore played with the theatrical, was doing a riff on The Magnificent Ambersons, engaging in a similar critique of social class and moral authority. Indeed, following Gouldner's thinking, one might seem the Tenenbaums as the contemporary Ambersons and trace the rise and fall of the family's intellectual fortune as one might Booth Tarkington's family. But, although Anderson admits briefly to the Tarkington connection in his commentary track, the transformations of the Tenenbaums take on a vibrant tenor of their own. Programmed with a rage for order after the desertion of Royal (and what better name for an imperious patriarch is that?), the family becomes trapped, enclosed. We see the signs everywhere in their bourgeois castle: Richie's increasingly redundant paintings of Margot reading books, a room of neatly shelved games. Playfulness and wildness have been pushed into the corner.
Solipsism abounds, with each member of the family drawing inward, much as Richie's camping tent sits incongruously inside the house. Even the regular outsider to the family, Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), is as much a Tenenbaum as the rest of them: a popular but semi-talented novelist who sells himself as a wild rebel to compensate for his desire to fit somehow into the Tenenbaum world. Increasingly desperate and self-destructive, Eli Cash knows better than any of them that solipsism is the upshot of an enclosed system where the currency of genius cannot circulate.
But hints of chaos are still apparent. Dalmatian mice (a product of Chas' youthful genetic experiments) wander the house. Margot is marked by a partially-severed finger, the product of a mysterious quest for her origins. Even Anderson's conceit to tie the story together as chapters of some sort of novel proves a shaky system of order at best: the text on screen at the start of each chapter never quite matches what we see.
From the rapid exposition of the opening minutes to the lovely tracking shot at the film's climax that brings to family together visually in front of the house (even if they are all carrying on separate conversations), Anderson's precise direction highlights the film's delicate balance of order and chaos. And the amusing clutter surrounding the Tenenbaums (including Eric Anderson's artwork all over the walls of the house chronicling minor incidents in the family's history) continues to reinforce the sense that this is a world filled with detail and potential, if only these traumatized souls would embrace it.
Wes Anderson's marvelous screenplay (written with Owen Wilson) for The Royal Tenenbaums may be one of the smartest scripts of the past few years. At once playful and literate, charming and introspective, funny and sad, it even takes advantage of its moments of near collapse (when it tries to pile on too many conceits at once) to suggest our need to balance order and chaos in equal measure. And its droll wit is carried off by an exceptional cast. No other American actor does droll with the ease of Gene Hackman (take a look at his meandering dinner conversation in The Birdcage to see what I mean). Perhaps only Ben Stiller seems more wired than the rest of the cast, but given the more incendiary temper of Chas, it suits the story effectively.
In an astute move, Disney has turned over the premiere DVD release of The Royal Tenenbaums to Criterion. The two-disc set is packed, as you might imagine, with a variety of extras. The anamorphic transfer shows off the intricate detail of the Tenenbaums' universe, and Anderson's inspired use of music (both popular songs and character specific instrumentation by Mark Mothersbaugh) and sound design is well-served by a choice of 5.1 and DTS mixes.
Wes Anderson does the commentary track solo, offering brisk and breezy insights into his writing and directing choices, as well as plenty of on-set stories. He is forthcoming with the influences on the film, ranging from Michael Powell and Jean Cocteau, to personal experiences and even odd inspirations like The Rockford Files. He even admits when he does not quite understand why he made a particular choice on the film. All this gives the impression that Anderson's style is rather intuitive, absorbing and processing everything around him and then mixing it together to see what results. Perhaps this explains his fascination with the intuitive "genius" of the Tenenbaums, and the risk each family member takes as that genius often collapses into solipsism (especially Margot and Richie, with whom Anderson expresses the most sympathy).
Formatted as a portrait gallery with artwork by Eric Anderson, disc two begins with an Easter egg introduction by Ben Stiller (look for another one with an outtake of Anjelica Huston's hair catching fire). A "scrapbook" offers over 200 behind-the-scenes photographs, Eric Anderson's portraits of Margot and murals for the house (all ascribed to Richie), storyboards for several scenes from Anderson's annotated script (suggesting how Anderson thinks visually, composing shots alongside dialogue), the book and magazine covers that appear in the film, several cute Easter eggs, and a radio interview with Miguel Calderon, who discusses his surreal biker photopaintings collected by Eli Cash in the film (shown in gallery form here). Anderson shows up in the interview to praise Calderon's work for its "lovable fakeness," a term that might equally apply to his own quirky film worlds.
There is a series of interviews (totaling nearly half an hour) with the entire principal cast members, each actor focusing on either details of characterization or his or her working relationship with Wes Anderson. Anderson himself is the focus of an Independent Film Channel profile directed by the noted documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles. Avoiding the usual "making of" documentary cliché of showing the director only pointing cameras and ordering actors around, Maysles follows Anderson during set construction, production design, and other pre-filming chores, chronicling the creative process without relying on "talking head" interviews. Overall, we get the clear impression that Anderson's job is far more involved than merely point-and-shoot: this is a writer/director who shapes every step of the process, even when he is encouraging his collaborators to show their creativity. Indeed, Anderson's working style proves so tight and carefully structured (especially his scripting) that the disc only includes two brief cut scenes, included here apparently from a workprint (they are a little overexposed and have only a mono soundtrack).
The most interesting treats are a booklet of Eric Anderson's maps for the Tenenbaum house, given to each member of the cast (and suggesting that the house itself is as much a character in the film as any family member), and a weird 14-minute segment called "The Peter Bradley Show." The show features "Peter Bradley" earnestly interviewing bit actors from the film, including the charming Kumar Pallana (former assassin turned family valet Pagoda). In keeping with Wes Anderson's sense of humor, this parody of Charlie Rose turns out to be a droll affair that becomes increasingly funny in its deadpan absurdity.
Trying to explain the events and transformations of The Royal Tenenbaums does make the film appear perhaps too serious in its traumas or too absurd in its excesses. Ultimately though, Wes Anderson manages to balance comedy and tragedy effectively, and in the end, succeeds in what Danny Glover refers to in his interview segment as celebrating the spirit of people. This is the heart of Anderson's film, that to get beyond our closed selves, to excel at our relationships with family and friends, to grow and make new connections—that is perhaps the true spirit of genius.
Haven't they all punished one other enough? The Tenenbaums are released by the court with an admonishment to just get over it. Criterion and Disney are commended on a fine job illuminating Wes Anderson's cinematic masterpiece.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Wes Anderson
Review content copyright © 2002 Mike Pinsky; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.