(Movie Review Written 12/01)
Although I've always been a fan of Wes Anderson's light, sharp "Bottle Rocket", "Rushmore" took some time for me to warm up to. The director's latest picture, "The Royal Tenenbaums", is a very enjoyable picture that includes some of the best performances of the year. It's also a film that I'm begining to appreciate even more since I've pondered it a little further and begin to write about it a day later.
The film boasts an exceptional cast, who are lead by Gene Hackman, who plays displaced father Royal Tenenbaum, ousted from the family for his inability to say the right thing to his children, who all think that he's something of a jerk. Chas (Ben Stiller), adopted Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Richie (Luke Wilson) are a group of three child geniuses, but things never really lifted off the ground once they were adults. Once Royal comes home for a reunion, they begin to find that they're working out their issues, as is their mother Etheline (Angelica Huston).
But, it's not quite that easy. Royal, who now finds himself with less and less in the way of funds, has to talk his way back into the household, and what he comes up with results in a hilarious scene outside with Huston's character. The three children have lost their shine over the years: Chas has become paranoid; the previously well-recieved writer Margot now sits in the bathroom for most of the day, while Ritchie continues to live with the fact that he was once a great tennis star and then choked during one match. The grown-up children are not thrilled with their father's reappearance, especially Chas, whose resentment of his father leads to some brilliantly funny moments from Stiller.
But, Royal tries his best. As hurtful as his words can accidentially be, he really does appear sorry for the years of dismay that he put his family through and he wants to make things right again. Although it starts off as simply being jealous of Etheline's new suitor, his attempt really ends up as an opportunity to try and make things some level of right again between him and his family.
The performances in "Tenenbaums" are terrific. Hackman creates a multi-layered character who really gains our sympathy in his quest for redemption. Stiller is the funniest of any of the characters, using his way with dialogue to spit out lines with such hilarious anger. Paltrow and Luke Wilson turn in strong performances as well. The movie also boasts a superb supporting cast, including "Rushmore"'s Bill Murray and co-writer Owen Wilson. It's even narrated by Alec Baldwin.
What really makes the film even more successful is the technical side, which is often similar to "Rushmore". The same genre of music (60's pop/rock) is used consistently on the soundtrack and it gives the movie that additional energy, push and a bit more soul. Each of the songs are paired to their scenes with almost remarkable perfection; I often had the feeling during many scenes that I doubted if there was another piece of music better suited for that particular sequence. The film's production design, set decoration and costume work are also exceptionally strong, with great detail apparent. Robert Yeoman ("Rushmore", "Dogma")'s cinematography also deserves special mention, creating a similar widescreen landscape to "Rushmore", isolating characters in the midst of endless outdoor backgrounds, while interior conversations are expertly composed.
If anything, my only complaints were a few moments in the middle that could have been tightened slightly. "Tenenbaums" does occasionally get a bit more dramatic and heavy than Anderson's previous two films, but this is generally handled well. A few other things to mention: it's a bit of a suprise that Murray, who was the best thing about "Rushmore", isn't given much more than an extended cameo here. I'm still getting used to Anderson's somewhat deadpan style, but "Tenenbaums" is the director's most mature work, blending sharp, quick and clever humor with some greater substance and underlying sadness.
I enjoyed "The Royal Tenenbaums" while I was watching it, but it's grown on me in the hours following as I pondered the richly detailed film, with its superb performances. Even after warming to it further, I'm still not going to say its without a few minor concerns, but I will certainly say I believe "Royal Tenenbaums" to be one of the best pictures I've seen in 2001.
VIDEO: "Royal Tenenbaums" is presented by Criterion in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen. As always, I enjoy reading the "about the transfer" section in the booklet of any Criterion release. In terms of "Royal Tenenbaums": "Created on a high-definition C-Reality and enhanced for 16x9 televisions, this new digital transfer was mastered from the 35mm interpositive." The picture quality was generally very good throughout, although a few minor faults did appear. Sharpness and detail were almost always very good, but not remarkable; a couple of scenes showed very slight softness.
Most of the usual flaws did not appear: the print appeared to be in excellent condition, with no specks, marks or other concerns. Some light grain was seen on occasion, but this seemed intentional and was also noticed when I saw the film theatrically. No pixelation appeared, but I did spot some minor edge enhancement in a handful of scenes.
The film's warm, rich color palette appeared well-rendered, looking nicely saturated and vivid, with no smearing. Black level seemed solid, as well, and flesh tones looked accurate. A very nice transfer (which was supervised by Anderson).
SOUND: "The Royal Tenenbaums" is presented in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 on this release. The film really offers only a simple sound design that's mostly front-heavy. The surrounds kick in slightly for the music, but for the most part, the audio is clearly rooted in the front speakers. Audio quality is very good, as the music sounds crisp and clear and dialogue remained fairly natural-sounding.
MENUS: Nicely done menus complete with little film-themed drawings often serving as menu options. There are two cases: a dual-disc case (double-width, not the single-width with the little swing-out for the other disc) is housed inside of a very nice slip-cover. The dual-case has a nice cover of its own, too, so it's up to the viewer to choose how the set will be kept.
Commentary: This is a commentary from writer/director Wes Anderson. Although it would have been very nice if any of the other cast/crew members had joined this track, Anderson does fairly well on his own. He goes through many of the production issues, from the look of the film to what it was like working with the large and varied cast. A few little blank spaces and some minor "narration" don't spoil an otherwise relaxed and enjoyable discussion of the film.
The Peter Bradley Show: Apparently an attempt to parody the "Charlie Rose" show, here host Peter Bradley interviews 6 (well, 5, since one doesn't show up) of the bit players from "Royal Tenenbaums". Aside from a few slightly funny comments about how limited their roles were, this 18-minute piece starts to go on a bit long, given that there's not a great deal of substance to it.
With The Filmmaker: A very good 26-minute documentary by the team of Albert Maysles, Larry Kamerman and Antonio Ferrera, this allows the viewer to spend time watching the crew on-set with, aside from one minor segment, no time wasted on telling us about the story of the movie we've just seen. This is pretty different than these documentaries usually are; most of the time is spend with Anderson and various members of the crew working on pre-production issues, such as painting, set decoration and shot planning/storyboarding.I think most viewers will enjoy this look at some of the steps that have to come together before the filming actually begins.
Interviews: Interviews with Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Danny Glover are included. These are video interviews that are enjoyable, if a little on the short side, running only a few minutes each, with behind-the-scenes clips edited in at a few points during each. Murray's is the best - his interview is very, very funny at times.
Stills: An enormous stills gallery is included, which offers storyboards, production stills and - if you look carefully in the section - a couple of funny little outtakes.
Cut Scenes: A couple of minutes of deleted material.
Also: 2 trailers and a quick intro to the DVD, which is hidden in the 2nd disc's main menu. As per usual, Criterion provides generous insert supplements; there are two small booklets, one of which includes Eric Anderson's concept drawings for the house.
Final Thoughts: "Tenenbaums" is another excellent film from Anderson, who capably handles a large cast, who all give terrific performances. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but I still find it entertaining. Criterion has provided a very enjoyable 2-DVD offering, with enjoyable audio/video and a nice helping of supplements. Recommended.