Wes Anderson's films tend to focus on disparate parts of broken families. There's motherless only child Max Fischer in Rushmore, 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 responsible.
Anderson's visual sensibility has the perfect venue in Tenenbaums: 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
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.