WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
I've had the pleasure of watching Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums several times since its theatrical premiere, and each time, the film grows richer and more eloquent. This is a darkly brilliant film, richly observed, infused with weird wonder, peopled with ragingly unique personalities, thrumming with subtle and perfect sounds, and colored with a keen artist's eye. It's a film I'll return to again and again to feel the off-kilter emotion that bleeds from the screen . . . to marvel at the way its characters seem to have warm human heft that denies the film's two-dimensional reality . . . to laugh at the peculiarities of everyday life even in the midst of personal tragedy. This Criterion/Buena Vista edition of The Royal Tenenbaums will take its place next to my three or four very favorite DVDs.
Gene Hackman brilliantly portrays Royal Tenenbaum, the estranged patriarch of a family of child prodigies who, through two decades' worth of failures and disappointments, have never realized the vast potential of their childhood magnificence. Chas (Ben Stiller), who was once an enterprising economics wiz, is now mired in bitterness following the death of his wife Rachael. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), once a young prize-winning playwright, now spends her days alone, smoking in her bathtub, stuck in a loveless marriage to kooky psychologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray). Richie (Luke Wilson), once a promising young tennis star, now wanders the globe, pining for the love of his adopted sister Margot. The story finds all the Tenenbaum children drawn back to their timeless New York home, just as Royal sets out to make amends with his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) and the rest of his despondently embittered family.
The story progresses at a dreamy ebb and flow, finding humor in its details and in its drowsy dialog. The Royal Tenenbaums is supremely satisfying not only in its immediate pleasures—for example, its perfectly jived musical score, its rich J.D. Salinger look, its note-perfect performances—but also for the rewards it bestows after it's finished. You'll be thinking about this one long after the credits roll, and on second and third viewing, you'll find yourself more firmly invested in Anderson's creation, savoring background detail and gaining a deeper appreciation for the many great supporting performances, such as Kumar Pallana's Pagoda and even Bill Murray's St. Clair.
The screenplay, by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, is a literate, peculiarly paced marvel of dark humor that doesn't aim directly for big laughs (like your everyday summer comedy). Instead, this script goes for the slow chuckle on first viewing and patiently awaits the big, admiring laughs that inevitably come later. And as it does so, the screenplay also has lots to say about family—about dynasty, about unconditional love and loyalty, about neglect, and about forgiveness.
The performances are beyond reproach. Hackman is amazing in a role that I can't imagine anyone else playing (the highest compliment I can give an actor). Paltrow delivers possibly her greatest performance, truly inhabiting the role of Margot. Luke Wilson is revelatory in his subdued role as Richie. Ben Stiller gives an angry performance but caps it off with a moment of raw emotion that is startling. Huston and Danny Glover (as Etheline's new beau) are superb. But the real star of The Royal Tenenbaums is writer-director Wes Anderson, who, with this film, has shouted out loud and clear that he is a force to be reckoned with in American cinema, a unique and articulate voice amidst the blandly murmuring crowd. I look forward to his next film with great anticipation.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Criterion and Buena Vista present The Royal Tenenbaums in a broad anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 2.40:1 theatrical presentation. The image accurately captures the theatrical experience, its colors just as vibrant and warm. Detail suffers only slightly thanks to mild edge enhancement. I noticed the telltale halos particularly in the outdoor scenes. The print is very clean, but the image sometimes appears just slightly on the harsh side. In the end, though, this is a very fine presentation.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The DVD contains three audio options (besides the commentary track): Dolby Digital 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS 5.1. I didn't notice significant differences between the Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks, and even when I thought the DTS track felt a bit more open and rich, I had to admit that it might be only my experience with DTS talking. In truth, I detected no real differences. The fact is, this film's soundtrack isn't particularly dynamic, and neither the surrounds nor the subwoofer get much of a workout. That being said, dialog comes across faithfully, and the soundtrack opens up wonderfully for Anderson's music. The front soundstage is pleasingly wide.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Criterion and Buena Vista have pooled their efforts to create a very special DVD package for The Royal Tenenbaums. Encased in a slipcover, this 2-DVD release is plastered with the signature style of Wes Anderson's brother Eric, who also provided Richie's artwork in the film. The result is an ambitious tonal artifact that really gears you up for the experience of the film. Considering the care and love that went into this packaging, I suspect Criterion has the lion's share of input into design—I made immediate comparisons with the Criterion release of Anderson's Rushmore.
The only extra on the first disc is an excellent screen-specific audio commentary by Wes Anderson. Although I longed for the participation of someone like Owen Wilson (as in the Rushmore commentary), I found this commentary to be endlessly fascinating, if not laugh-out-loud funny. Anderson, whom I took for a soft-spoken guy who might not be able to handle full commentary duties, does a fine job of providing behind-the-scenes anecdotes. He even talks at length about his various inspirations and influences. This is one of the better commentaries I've listened to, and it's a must for Anderson fans.
First up on the second disc is a 25-minute documentary entitled With the Filmmaker: Portraits by Albert Maysles, produced by Albert Maysles, Antonio Ferrera, and Larry Kamerman. Next to the commentary, this is the meatiest extra, taking a hands-off approach to documentary filmmaking and just letting the subject do his thing. We get lots of insight into Anderson's creative process as he goes about his preproduction and behind-the-scenes chores. Great stuff.
Next is a series of Interviews with stars Hackman, Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Huston, Glover, Stiller, and Murray. These full-frame video segments are about 2 or 3 minutes each, and as such aren't very meaty, but they provide some good laughs. You can watch them individually or you can choose to Play All.
The 18-minute Peter Bradley Show segment is something of an oddity, and once I realized that it was a parody of the format and incompetence of the "Charlie Rose" show, I had a great laugh. This piece perfectly skewers Rose's lack of interviewing skill and preparedness. It purports to be a free-flowing interview with several bit players from the film and ends up being a chaos of dangling sound bites and interrupted interviewees. Very funny.
Mislabeled on the case as Outtakes, the Deleted Scenes consist, sadly, of only two scenes, each about 2 minutes long. Presented in anamorphic widescreen, one scene offers offer a look into the private life of Owen Wilson's character, Eli Cash, and features Olivia Williams (Rushmore) as Eli's wife. (It also features, somewhat shockingly, a fully nude female model.) The second scene is a glimpse at a tender moment between Huston and Glover. I was disappointed that more material wasn't included here.
Next is a wonderful and extensive The Art of the Movie scrapbook, which compromises more than 200 still images. The images include wrap-party photos, book covers as seen in the film, and paintings by Eric Anderson, storyboards, and Miguel Calderon art, as seen in Eli's apartment.
You also get the film's two fantastic Alec Baldwin-narrated theatrical trailers in anamorphic widescreen, and two collectible booklets. The first booklet is a 12-page foldout of Eric Anderson's record of how Wes envisioned the Tenenbaum house. The second is a 14-page foldout that holds a scholarly essay by film critic Kent Jones, chapter stop listings, information about the transfer, and DVD production credits.
Watch for a few easy-to-find easter eggs.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
This is one of those happy junctures in space and time when a brilliant film receives brilliant DVD treatment. Kudos to Criterion and Buena Vista for partnering up to produce this beautifully packaged gem. You can find this baby for less than $20—a complete no-brainer.