The Royal Tenenbaums is a profound examination of the human condition. It’s hard to think about Tenenbaums, which Anderson made as a precious object–he tends to put the actors on the right and fill the left side of the frame with exactly placed sundries, sometimes it’s the carefully placed minutiae, but he usually puts those items on either side of a centrally placed actor–as a character piece. The film tells the story of specific, highly fictional characters (I don’t think I’ve ever used highly to modify fictional before) in a very specific place–it’s New York, but it’s not New York. It’s an otherworldly setting. There are no “normal” people in the film until the end, and even then it’s questionable….
Watching Tenenbaums, the only thing I could think of as a comparison was something a writing professor once told one of my classmates. The student asked–after we just got through reading an interview with Faulkner–if he could write science fiction. The professor said sure, just as long as it was about the things (the human heart in conflict with itself, others and its environment) Faulkner had been talking about. The Royal Tenenbaums, with the meticulous sets, the strict composition and the exclusive characters, is like really good science fiction. The relationship between Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow (adoptive siblings in love) is not a Hollywood standard. Anderson and Owen Wilson’s script somehow makes such elements moving, but still funny (maybe not so much Luke Wilson and Paltrow, who are sort of the film’s protagonists–definitely the relationship between Gene Hackman and Danny Glover though).
Even Ben Stiller, who has the film’s easiest role (and gets the easiest out, which I always hold against him at the beginning of the film but never by the end), is irreplaceable. Stiller takes a backseat to Grant Rosenmeyer and Jonah Meyerson (as his sons); their interactions with Hackman are a much funnier way to spend running time, but the film still pulls Stiller in by the end, giving him one great moment in the film.
It’s incredible people–critics, the Academy Awards–didn’t recognize Hackman for this performance, because it’s the closest thing he’s ever done to a slapstick role and he’s perfect in it. It’s a magnificent performance, full of life–every time Hackman stops talking, there’s an anticipation for what he’s going to say next… the film’s a wonderful viewing experience, even after the drama takes over.
The way Anderson and Owen Wilson approach the drama is interesting. It isn’t the climax, which is a more comedic moment, it’s a little while before (I wonder if they used the same formula in Bottle Rocket and Rushmore–I know I should remember). Tenenbaums is so good it’s hard to write about, but five or six hundred words also can’t cover it all. I might never get around to mentioning the use of music–like the instrumental “Hey Jude” at the open or the Van Morrison at the close. I can’t remember it all.
Anjelica Huston’s great, Danny Glover’s great (why he doesn’t get more eclectic roles like this one I don’t understand), Paltrow and Luke Wilson are wonderful together–see, they deserve a few hundred words just themselves–and I haven’t even gotten to the narration read by Alec Baldwin.
I remember, going to see The Life Aquatic, wondering if Anderson could top Tenenbaums. He never will.