The Royal Tenenbaums

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS

8/10

USA 2001 : Wes Anderson : 106-110 mins

Merrily blasting along, high on the possibilities of cinema, The Royal Tenenbaums at first seems so unlike the normal run of films it’s easy to mistake it for a boldly imaginative leap into dazzling originality. But look closer and certain ingredients emerge as strangely familiar: this isn’t the first recent Hollywood comedy to reap surprisingly strong box-office dividends by focussing on a relatively posh Manhattan family, with aspects so unorthodox as to be borderline surreal, going about their business in a cartoonishly fantastical version of Manhattan’s present-day Upper East Side.

The parallels with Stuart Little, while so far largely overlooked in the mountain of analysis already lavished on Tenenbaums, do have a straightforward explanation: the talking mouse was created by short-story writer E B White, a regular contributor to the New Yorker magazine which Anderson has cited as his main inspiration for the Tenenbaum world. He’s mentioned White, along with A J Liebling, as a specific influence. Anyone familiar with the New Yorker – especially the earlier issues – wouldn’t need to be told all this: Tenenbaums is exactly like one of the magazine’s flight-of-fancy covers brought to vividly-coloured life, and the history of the eponymous clan and their various offshoots certainly has the flavour of the publication’s profiles of prominent, slightly bizarre, Manhattanites.

It’s also obvious that Anderson is a big fan of J D Salinger’s stories of the prodigious Glass family (from novellas like Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters), and also that he’s proud to wear his literary and cinematic ambitions on his sleeve. Most critics have gone to town on the Magnificent Ambersons connection, using it as a short cut to compare Anderson with Orson Welles, but, beyond the vaguely similar titles and the device of using an unseen narrator (here Alec Baldwin) to skip quickly through the family history, this line of attack isn’t especially productive. The narration technique seems to owe more to Jules et Jim, or even Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence – another tale of frustrated ambition played out fancy Manhattan parlours.

Of all the New York movies Anderson has channelled into the Tenenbaum grain, however, it’s Rosemary’s Baby which is perhaps the closest fit, another wintry, blackly comic outsider’s vision of the Upper East Side. Whether you’re Polish like Polanski or Texan like Anderson, Manhattan’s cultural presence means it can take persuasive mental form long before you actually set foot in the place. In Anderson’s hands (as well as directing, he co-wrote the script with Owen Wilson, a longtime collaborator on both sides of the camera) this alt-Manhattan becomes a backdrop for what becomes a cinematic board-game: just like the board-games that crowd in, claustrophobically, on the characters when they retreat to the Tenenbaum toy cupboard. (As in so many of the film’s scenes, the screen is packed with detail – perhaps vital, perhaps just there as a throwaway gag – and the alert viewer will spot a game called ‘Go To The Head of the Class’ tucked away on one of the shelves, perhaps Anderson’s way of acknowledging his current status as cinema’s most ostentatious overgrown-child prodigy).

The characters are instantly recognisable, seldom changing their way of dressing, especially the three Tenenbaum kids, who settle on their individual ‘uniforms’ in early childhood. Everyone in the cast suffers bewilderingly sudden ups and downs, galloping up life’s ladders one moment, slither down snakes the next.

And just as a snakes and ladders game is divided into precise mathematical boxes, so is Tenenbaums a thing of compartments, frames, right angles, squares within squares.

Likewise, the action tends to be divided into short, abrupt scenes – occasionally, the narrator will spin us through a long span of time, and if the film is very difficult to successfully synopsise, that’s perhaps because the film itself is nearly all synopsis. But it’s easy to get carried along – as in Rushmore and Bottle Rocket, Anderson’s greatest gift is his synchronisation of music with action: it’s no coincidence that the most memorable scenes in the film (a) Luke Wilson’s suicide attempt, scored to Elliot Smith’s ‘Needle in the Hay’, (b) Gwyneth Paltrow getting off a bus to meet Wilson, sitting on a bench while white-uniformed naval personnel stride past behind, all in slow motion to Nico’s cover of Jackson Browne’s ‘These Days’ and (c) the delirious montage of Gene Hackman showing his penned-in grandkids a good time as Paul Simon’s ‘Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard’ barrels them and us all merrily along.

So merrily, in fact, that it’s very easy to forgive or even overlook the script’s limitations: when Anderson and Owen Wilson maintain their tone, they’re fine. When it slips, the film can often seem hollow and pointless, unwilling or unable to deal with the more complex aspects of genuine emotion, of life and death (ranging from the fatal stomach cancer that afflicted Henry’s first wife to the distressingly haphazard way in which Buckley the dog, source of so much humour and cuteness, is rather haphazardly killed off in the final reel.) Wilson’s Eli Cash character seems to have strayed in from a completely different movie – and the defence that this is deliberate, as Eli is a perpetual outsider, looking on with undisguised envy at the Tenenbaums clan, doesn’t go very far. And on what does this giddy edifice end up pivoting? Richie’s unrequited, semi-forbidden love for his adopted sister Margot. It hardly seems worth all this relentless crazed energy.

But this energy, channeled into Anderson’s technique, is what makes Tenenbaums such a frequent marvel – Anderson directs films like somebody experimenting with a brand-new medium, rather than one that’s 100 years old. It’s also worth pointing out that his editor, Dylan Tichenor, deserves rather more credit than he’s been allotted in the various Tenenbaums encomia: this is only his fifth fictional feature film, and his others are Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia, the little-seen Hurlyburly and Unbreakable from M Night Shyamalan, who coincidentally wrote the Stuart Little script. As an opening quintet, Tichenor’s a body of work which very few directors in movie history can claim to match. The Magnolia parallels are irresistible – the wildly ambitious of a young American director named Anderson, a film about family and families, showing a major US city as it’s never been shown before. But whole Magnolia improves with each viewing, Tenenbaums yields up nearly all its rewards first time around.

Tenenbaums lacks the ambiguity, the open spaces, the air that separates a really good movie from the level of art. It’s a divide which Magnolia, for all its messiness, manages to leap. There is genuinely great art on view here, but it isn’t made by Anderson – on Eli Cash’s walls we see several canvas ‘painted’ by Mexican artist Miguel Calderon (via a process to complex to go into here, but explained in an excellent Film Comment article). The best of these is the astonishing ‘Bad Route’, which shows various masked, stripped-to-the-waist, mescaline-fuelled quadbikers lined up in a pose of jokey menace. It’s owned by Anderson, and he’s said that he keeps it in his office because it’s too strong to go in his home. He’s spot on – and it’s also too strong to go in his movie.


30th March, 2002
(seen 26th January, Cineworld Milton Keynes, and 6th March, Warner Village, Newcastle)

For an interview with Wes Anderson click here
For an interview with Owen Wilson click here

by Neil Young
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