American Royalty

ARTS Salutes The (Dysfunctional) Family of the Year

In the new film the royal Tenenbaums, supporting character and decadent author Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) becomes a household name with the publication of his best-selling novel “Old Custer,” a fantastical piece of fiction that plays with the concept of Custer’s having actually survived Little Big Horn. Cash, or the “James Joyce of the West,” crests on his newfound celebrity to score drugs, female companionship and war paint.

Yet despite all his fame and glory, he still has one unfulfilled desire: To be a member of the Tenenbaum family. Growing up as the boy next door to the titular dysfunctional family, he still longs to be one of them even as his success seems to grow proportionally with their failures.

A story of faded genius, familial dysfunction and redemption, The Royal Tenenbaums is a hilarious, yet emotionally mature piece of work co-written by Wilson and Wes Anderson, the tag team behind the deliciously demented comedies Rushmore (1998) and Bottle Rocket (1994). But while Wilson plays the outsider in the film, in reality, Anderson seems to be the one on the outside, looking into the Wilson family of actors.

With his clear glasses and poufed up hair, he admittedly looks nothing like a Wilson. But either way, the tight camaraderie that exists between himself and Owen, his

former University of Texas at Austin roommate, translates perfectly into celluloid. As Anderson explains, “I feel like Owen and I have a sensibility or voice that we have found together. I think we’ve got to continue with it.” “Luckily we’re kind of simpatico with our sensibilities and stuff,” Wilson chimes.


But while Anderson and Wilson’s artistic tastes may correspond with each other, their sense of absurdist humor diverges from that of the pedestrian. Their past two feature films were far from mainstream, and have practically achieved cult status. However, both are also quick to avoid describing their work as quirky. Anderson elucidates, “I don’t like quirky at all. Quirky is the thing I want to not be. There’s no point in trying to be weird. But I think people think this [movie] stuff is quirky. [Owen and I] are trying to make it as original as can be and we try to make things exciting and throw a few surprises in. All I’m trying to do is make it good.”

And good it is.

Set in a whimsical New York City, Anderson and Wilson’s third feature film together is an unpredictable love letter to the magic of the city, filled with gypsy cabs, majestic hotels and lushly verdant parks. Anderson notes that, “In a way, some of the inspiration for the movie is the architecture of the buildings there. The libraries and clubs and houses and things are unlike those any other place in America.” While the film features locations as far-flung as Antarctica, Paris and Jamaica, a large brownstone in Harlem that doubles as the Tenenbaum’s residence takes center stage.

At its heart, Tenenbaums is a tale of dreams deferred, faded genius and the redeeming value of family. The story begins with the union of Royal and Etheline Tenenbaum, parents to a trio of child geniuses: Chas, a child financial wizard who makes his fortune breeding dalmation mice; Richie “the Baumer” Tenenbaum, a teenage tennis champion; and Margot, a famous playwright who wins a Braverman Grant of $50,000 in the fourth grade. But following Royal and Etheline’s separation, two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster erase all trace of the children’s early brilliance. As adults, they are now lingering in a melancholic limbo: The adult Chas (Ben Stiller) is still reeling from the death of his wife, and paranoidly dresses himself and his two sons in nothing but red jumpsuits so that they are always prepared for an emergency. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is unhappily married to the neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), who spends most of his time experimenting on Dudley, a boy who could pass as Rushmore’s Max Fischer’s mentally ill cousin. Richie (Luke Wilson), having suffered a mental breakdown on the courts, is now sailing the world in a boat while secretly pining for Margot.

Having been disbarred and kicked out of the Lindbergh Palace, his home for the past 20 years, as well as catching wind of his wife’s upcoming nuptials, Royal decides to reconcile with his family by feigning his impending death. With his manservant Pagoda (Kumar Pallana) at his side, he proceeds to wreak the necessary havoc to disrupt his family’s otherwise ignoble states.

Anderson’s deadpan artistry helps this tale of literate, elitest characters make their way through their upper-class milieu. Recalling Rushmore’s opening yearbook sequence, Anderson starts the film off with an expanded, hilarious prologue introducing the young geniuses and documenting their rise to fame and the insane treatment they were afforded by their father. The look of the pages at each chapter title gives the feel of a highly stylized story, a fantastic aspect that is further accentuated by Alec Baldwin’s tart narration as he guides viewers chapter by chapter through the Tenenbaums’ lives. The storybook opening is a fitting metaphor for a story where a number of the characters are writers or artists in one way or another.

While the cast works well together to establish a camaraderie, they do not seem completely believable as a cohesive family, not only because none of the central cast resembles each other, but also because each character is established as such an individual. The central figure of the ensemble is undoubtedly Gene Hackman, the only actor Anderson found “charming enough” to get away with addressing his wife’s African-American suitor Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) as “Coltrane.” He is genuinely delightful as he takes Chas’ repressed sons Ari and Uzi out for a day trip, jay-walking across busy streets, hitching rides on garbage trucks and stealing bottles of milk from convenience stores, much in the joyous tradition of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. However, Royal is simply unapologetic; it is obvious why his children dislike him and cannot accept him back into their lives. When the children were still young, he had no qualms about callously and patronizingly introducing his daughter Margot to everyone as adopted, or shooting his son Chas during a BB gun fight even though they were on the same team. Even by the film’s conclusion, Royal’s overarching personality has not changed. As Henry summarizes, he’s simply elevated from being an “asshole to just a son of a bitch.”

As the adult versions of the Tenenbaum children, Stiller, Paltrow and Wilson do fine jobs with their roles. Murray, so dryly funny in Rushmore, is given surprisingly little to do as Margot’s husband Raleigh St. Clair.

Without a doubt, the highly stylized Tenenbaums is instantly recognizable as an Anderson film. In addition to his characteristic jump shots, Anderson once again employs an eclectic soundtrack to galvanize his film. Although his musical selections for Tenenbaums fall within the same vintage as Rushmore, he now substitutes the more upbeat British Invasion tunes for a darker, more melancholic sound appropriate for his newest film’s more depressing themes. Songs by Elliot Smith, Nico and the Rolling Stones pepper the soundtrack, and his use of instantly recognizable songs (“Hey Jude” blares over the opening scenes) demonstrate the more mainstream feel of the film as a whole.

Shot on a tight budget, the cast’s willingness to forgo their usual salaries is a testament to their faith in Anderson’s film-making. As Stiller notes, “I would venture to say that we didn’t take as big a pay cut as the Ocean’s Eleven stars because we didn’t get paid as much, but everybody was working for whatever it was just to do the movie.” Stylistically, the cast wears the same clothes throughout, sans Chas’ switch from a red jumpsuit to a black one for a funeral scene.

Overall, Anderson’s third film The Royal Tenenbaums is much darker than his previous cinematic ventures, but the slight divergence is worth the effort. With its collage of complex familial and romantic relationships, demented humor and all-star talent, the film certainly lives up to its tagline: “Family isn’t a word, it’s a sentence.”