Movie Review: Wes Anderson Makes His Masterpiece with THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS

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With The Royal Tenenbaums, filmmaker Wes Anderson created his masterpiece.  It’s the apex of the themes and styles and obsessions that have dominated his relatively compact body of work (seven full-length features, beginning with 1996’s Bottle Rocket and running through this year’s sad and wonderful Moonrise Kingdom), the high-water mark he’s yet to lift.  That’s not to say that his post-Tenenbaums work has been subpar – far from it.  2007’s disappointing The Darjeeling Limited aside, Anderson has scored triumphs large and small: the misanthropic whimsy of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox‘s erudite children’s fable.  But what these other films lack is the ease he brought to The Royal Tenenbaums, and that’s no small feat, considering the odd mélange of styles Anderson has created.

Aesthetically, The Royal Tenenbaums sees Anderson pushing his own visual grammar into ever-bolder abstractions.  His previous films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, certainly do not want for visual curlicues – I’m thinking specifically of Dignan’s handmade robbery schematics in Bottle Rocket, or the “Making Time” montage that frames hero Max Fischer in the middle of the many high-school clubs and committees he chairs – but the stylizations punctuate otherwise normal geographic and aesthetic realms; barring a few exceptions, his first two films feel planted in the real world.

Not so in The Royal Tenenbaums.  From its first frames, which – like a Disney cartoon of yore – send the reader into the opening pages of the (fictional) novel comprising the film’s narrative, Anderson establishes The Royal Tenenbaums as a world within itself, free from the rhythms and constraints of mundane reality.  It’s set in the present-day (note the ultra-modern, almost Tati-esque accoutrements of Ben Stiller’s antiseptic apartment), yet many of the temporal signifiers – taxi cabs, televisions, tape recorders – suggest a period closer to the 1960s.  It’s set in Manhattan, yet Anderson perversely denies us any familiar NYC landmarks, creating an unreal, ethereal version of the city; one of my favorite shots shows star Gene Hackman positioned so his body completely blocks out the Statue of Liberty.

This is a film where the characters’ inviolate costumes define their psyches better than any dialogue could (the frightening efficiency and rigidity of Stiller’s fire-engine red track suit, for example, or how Luke Wilson’s beard and layers of tennis-wear stand as a constant reminder of his failed sports promise while also armoring him against the psychological turmoil of those failures), where an unseen narrator (Alec Baldwin) offers up revelations about the protagonists before they themselves have them, thus further emphasizing the distance between us and the screen (a tactic borrowed from Stanley Kubrick’s masterful Barry Lyndon).  And if that weren’t enough, Anderson often introduces key information by cutting to books his protagonists have written or to live-action tableaus showing them in times past.  It is, as critic Matt Zoller Seitz remarked about The Darjeeling Limited, the movie as Russian Doll: with every world we enter, we find more to uncover, and more within them, and more within them…

We should feel nothing; the film looks nothing less than an ornate, dollhouse cutaway brought to life.  Somehow, though, Anderson guts us, and he does so because he pushes the emotions as aggressively as he pushes the aesthetic.  They might live in a dollhouse, but Anderson’s heroes aren’t dolls: they’re seething, aching, stumbling, aggressive, defeated humans, prone to bad behavior and antisocial tendencies and frightening need.  The human drama has some of the unpretty sting that John Cassavettes brought to his independent films (including a moment of violence so shocking that it always catches you off-guard, whether you know it’s coming or not); with the exception of Anjelica Huston’s wise matriarch, each of the Tenenbaums is trapped alongside the crippling personal flaws stunting their development.

Paltrow’s frustrated playwright cheats on her doting, sensitive husband (a warm, sympathetic Bill Murray) as easily – and as frequently – as breathing.  Stiller’s type-A businessman shelters his two young sons to such a degree that they resemble zombies more than they do ten-year-old boys.  Wilson’s depressed tennis champion barely speaks to anyone, choosing instead to sequester himself within the (relative) security of a mid-Atlantic cruise ship.  And Hackman’s monstrously self-indulgent patriarch is 90% responsible for his children’s issues, yet still he refuses to repent (it is his scheme to worm his way back into the family’s affections by pretending he has cancer that kicks off the main action).

What makes this watchable – and often very funny, thanks to Hackman’s gleefully amoral performance – is that everyone wants more.  The Tenenbaums struggle daily with their own inadequacies and failings, and they hope that some form of salvation exists around the corner.  Their indulgences, as such, spring less from genuine malice and more from some misguided-but-totally-understandable notion that if they flail hard and fast enough, something good must happen.  The Tenenbaums want to be better, and it’s the discrepancy between their intentions and their actions that gives The Royal Tenenbaums its curious impact.

It’s an odd bird, this one, a mix of J.D. Salinger and A Charlie Brown Christmas, yet it plays as confidently as the works of the great masters.  Truffaut, Ozu, Kurosawa, Welles: they all play in the same sandbox as Anderson, and it was The Royal Tenenbaums that put him there.

Criterion’s Blu-ray looks phenomenal – Anderson and DP Robert Yeoman shot the feature with a distinct visual palette (all muted pastels and sharp textures), and the disc replicates them without sacrificing visual quality.  The Blu-ray also adds a lovely 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.

Bonus features are plentiful, including a commentary with Anderson; the Albert Maysles-directed “With the Filmmaker” featurette; interviews with Hackman, Huston, Stiller, Paltrow, Wilson, co-writer and actor Owen Wilson, Murray, and Danny Glover; two quick deleted scenes; “The Peter Bradley Show” faux-interview segment; a “scrapbook” gallery featuring stills, original artwork, and storyboards from the movie; two trailers; and a booklet with drawings and a Kent Jones essay.

The Royal Tenenbaums is a modern classic, a sad, funny masterwork on family and redemption.

Criterion’s Blu-ray is now available HERE at Amazon.

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