Wes Anderson's films tend to focus on disparate
parts of broken families. There's motherless only child Max Fischer
the lone wolf Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic, and the three brothers unmoored from their
parents in The
Darjeeling Limited. Of Anderson's growing oeuvre, The Royal Tenenbaums is the only film in which an entire -
if not entirely intact - family figures as the focus of the story.
Despite the fact that we are dealing with a family of "geniuses," Tenenbaums
is probably Anderson's most realistic film. Flights of fancy are relegated
to some basic plot elements (a tennis champion, a business tycoon, and
a literary celebrity all growing up under the same roof, for example),
while the inter-character dynamics that drive the film are much more
identifiable. I don't think Anderson has topped the Tenenbaums screenplay, which explores each family member's
sovereign emotional experience in the context of the others' - a
tricky juggling act executed with unwavering fidelity to the unique
world of the film.
The Tenenbaum children had a lot going for them. Chas
(Ben Stiller) was a finance whiz who made a mint at a young age. So
did Richie (Luke Wilson), although his talent lies in playing tennis.
Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the family's adopted sibling, and she
gained early renown as a playwright. At the height of the children's
success, their parents Etheline (Angelica Huston) and Royal (Gene Hackman)
announced their divorce, tossing the professional and emotional lives
of Chas, Richie, and Margot into total disarray.
Now, years later, each of them having enduring various
forms of decline, struggle, and even tragedy, the family reunites when
Royal announces that he has cancer. All of their old grievances, baggage,
and unsettled accounts converge in a series of frustrating, baffling,
contradictory, and finally cathartic encounters - with the obtuse,
tactless Royal at the center of things, providing both unwarranted provocation
and belated wisdom to the family for whose mutual alienation he is largely
Anderson's visual sensibility has the perfect venue
the weathered, eclectic family home of a bunch of oddballs. Each room
reflects the distinctive nature and interests of the character who inhabits
it: a spare room with a desk and bookcase for Margot, the writer, and
an antiseptic office for the business-oriented Chas. The house contains
visual references to almost every event, past and present, germane to
these characters' defining attributes. Anderson's details are much
more than whimsical décor; they represent the characters and help reinforce
their distinctive qualities in a film stuffed with incident and humor.
As far as the theme of peaking early goes - might
this be Anderson struggling with the early success of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore? Maybe, but who cares? The idea of peaking early is
an interesting one, however, especially since the phrase "peaking
early" itself suggests a prejudice toward human lives having a single
peak - an idea that has clearly haunted Chas, Richie, Margot, and
their novelist pal Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) all these years. Post-peak,
what is one to do? Disspiate via sex, drink, and drugs, apparently.
Give up, emotionally and otherwise. The guidance these four so sorely
needed during adolescence was nowhere to be found, because their parents
decided to abandon the family unit. This is where the movie gets its
real, underlying (and understated) power: from the idea that best possible
upside of growing up in a love-starved family is the fucked-up,
torturous battle to reclaim the ability to feel something.
Image and Sound
Criterion's Blu-ray replicates the exact content of their earlier
two-disc DVD edition on a single Blu-ray. The 2.40:1 transfer is both
crisp and film-like, beautifully rendered with very fine detail and
excellent timing. The yellowish cast Anderson prefers is present here,
although not quite as dominant as it would become beginning with The
Darjeeling Limited. In fact, in many ways, due largely to its somewhat
shabby, aging settings, the look of The Royal Tenenbaums is more realistic
that Anderson's other pictures. As with every other aspect of the
film, there's not a sound out of place on the rich 5.1 DTS-HD Master
Audio track, which emphasizes music and dialogue while maintaining an
open, multi-directional ambiance.
Although nothing is new on this Blu-ray disc, Criterion has included
every feature from their two-disc DVD.
- Wes Anderson's commentary track is detailed, precise,
and honest. He discusses everything: story origins, casting, music,
and other technical details pertaining to the film's locations and
photography. A fascinating, in-depth track.
- With the Filmmaker (27:05) is a short documentary co-directed
by Albert Maysles (Salesman, Grey Gardens) that focuses on Anderson's
thought process during the making of The Royal Tenenbaums.
- Interviews (27:00 total) of all the major cast members provide
what seem to be genuine insight into the production from a variety of
perspectives - in other words, the actors aren't parroting PR flacks
or studio hype in anyway. A far more interesting group of clips than
we are accustomed to.
- Cut Scenes (1:48 total) are brief, but amusing, and include
appearances by Olivia Williams as Eli Cash's wife, and a song by John
Coltrane that echoes Royal's reference to the musician in the finished
- The Peter Bradley Show (26:26) is a fictional Charlie Rose-style
talk show, starring actor Larry Pine as the eponymous host, who proceeds
to somewhat awkwardly interview some of the supporting actors and minor
crew from the film.
- Scrapbook includes stills, information on painter Miguel Calderon
(whose work appears in Eli's house), storyboards, and more.
- Two trailers are also included.
A careful, hilarious, unpredictable, and totally unconventional
film, The Royal
Tenenbaums displays Wes Anderson's formal precision at its
best, in that it entirely serves a story and its characters, instead
of the other way around. Although there's nothing new on this particular
disc, the brilliant transfer and wonderful extras make it an essential
purchase for those who do not already own the film. Highly recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.