*. I understand the love for Wes Anderson. That such a young director could make movies so polished, assured, and informed by such a knowledge of the entire history of film is remarkable. There is nothing in The Royal Tenenbaums, or his previous film Rushmore (1998) for that matter, that feels out of place. On repeated viewings you will see more and more at work, at least in the visuals.
*. Having said all that, as quickly as possible, I’ll now say I’m not a fan. I like Anderson’s movies but I don’t love them. This is at least in part because they seem so consciously designed to be liked.
*. What do I mean? Well, by accident I was rewatching this movie the same week I watched Left Behind (the one starring Nicolas Cage). The two films have probably never been associated in anyone’s head, but I was struck by how similar they felt. What I said about Left Behind (and it’s an observation others made) is that it has not just the look but the emotional weight of a Hallmark Theater production. Turning to The Royal Tenenbaums just a couple of days later I was struck by how similar it was in this respect. It is polished, yes, but to a point where everything seems artificial, while carrying a weightless, feel-good message about family, love, and then through love finding redemption.
*. The Tenenbaums are a dysfunctional family, with a penchant (inherited from patriarch Royal) for flaming out. But there is no drama. Perhaps taking their lead from Bill Murray, by now an icon of deadpan, the cast take dryness to Murray-esque extremes. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a zombie, and apparently isn’t even on drugs. The Wilson brothers both seem lobotomized. Danny Glover, dressed up in a Kofi Annan uniform, bears a truly unfortunate resemblance to a racist lawn ornament, and has the same stiff impassivity. Etheline (Anjelica Huston) appears to be surprised by feeling. Only Royal (Gene Hackman) and Chas (Ben Stiller) show any humanity at all.
*. This is an ironic twist. We are used to family drama being dramatic. We revel in the bitchiness of family reunions, from The Lion in Winter to Ordinary People. Or we like to watch the fireworks in family comedies like Meet the Parents. But the Tenenbaum clan turns this on its head. They’re eccentrics, but they’re narcotized. There are no fireworks when they get together. They don’t seem to love or hate one another but instead only engage in half-hearted manipulative games.
*. What I thought most lacking was the pain. The Tenenbaum kids are supposed to be damaged, but they don’t feel like survivors of anything. They’re just zeroes. I found it interesting to read that both Hackman and Huston initially turned down their roles unless more material was written for them because they thought their characters lacked depth. I can only imagine how thin they were originally.
*. This thinness is what I find characterizes Anderson’s work. It’s what makes him so popular, and it’s what I don’t like. The Royal Tenenbaums is a very well made movie but it’s also a silly piece of fluff. I began by saying how, on repeated viewings, one can appreciate more and more in its visual texture, its art and design. At the same time, I find less and less actually going on.