Sunday, February 20, 2005

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS - the perfect tragicomedy

With the recent release of the deeply disappointing Wes Anderson movie, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, I am taking this opportunity to re-examine Anderson’s earlier movies, starting with what I consider to be the best of all, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. As with THE LIFE AQUATIC, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS is a movie full of eccentric, larger-than-life characters living in a richly-imagined world one degree more whacky than our own. Whether or not you like this film will depend on how far you buy into, and are charmed by, this tragi-comic heightened reality. For my part, I found the family, and therefore the film, utterly winning.

The family is headed by a long absent father named Royal Tenenbaum. He is played by Gene Hackman, who looks like he is having a whale of a time on screen for the first time in years. Royal is a corrupt lawyer who has been ostracised by his family for the past decade, but is seeking reconciliation by any means necessary. In this, he is aided and abetted by his sidekicks, Pagoda and Dusty, the bell-hop at the seedy hotel he has made his home - a classic understated and hilarious cameo performance by
Seymour Cassel. In his absence, the family has been headed by Royal’s wife, Etheline, played by Angelica Huston. Etheline is written as a wonderful mother, ever-concerned with her children’s welfare; decent but not credulous. She is seeing an accountant played by Danny Glover - another good, earnest man. The love scenes between the two combine sweetness and comedy in a manner that recent British mockumentary, CONFETTI, entirely failed to pull off. Meanwhile, the children are all having emotional breakdowns. Richie (Luke Wilson) is a failed tennis pro in love with an unattainable woman; Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is in a loveless marriage and has failed to live up to her early promise as a writer; Chas (Ben Stiller) is in mourning for his wife and is paranoid about the safety of his twin sons, Uzi and Ari. In the mix we also have Ritchie’s oleaginous childhood friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), a wildly popular but talentless writer with a drug problem who has long wanted to be a Tenenbaum, and Bill Murray as Margot’s husband. Will it come as any surprise to regular filmgoers to discover that Bill Murray’s character is a melancholy and world-weary middle-aged man?

As can be seen from these short character descriptions, the Royal Tenenbaums is about a bunch of troubled people, who are drawn back to the family in search of solace – whether or not they were part of the family in the first place. As each character comes to terms with awkward reality, the tone of the movie alternates between tragedy and comedy with such ease as to make this a master-class for screen-writers. Both the tragic and comic scenes are elevated to perfect pitch and the film puts, to my mind, not a foot wrong. Of course, as with all Wes Anderson movies, the production design and sound-track are also out-standing. The attention to detail is staggering - from whimsically designed wallpaper, to the book covers of the novels that the characters write, to the brand of beaten-up old taxis that roam the streets of this re-imagined New York. Meanwhile, the sound-track features mournful songs from Nico, Dylan, Elliott Smith, The Stones, Nick Drake and Lou Reed. However, unlike THE LIFE AQUATIC, the rich design never seems self-indulgent. Where LIFE AQUATIC dragged, so that all the audience had to do was look at the beautiful sets, the foreground action of TENENBAUMS always has us rapt. The cute incidental background details are just that. It is this delicate balance between fascinating foreground action and the hints of a fully developed world behind it that makes TENENBAUMS one of my favourite movies.


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