Wes Anderson is an authentic original — an eccentric and heretical talent. Now 31, he has directed only a handful of films, including an extended version of a short called Bottle Rocket and two other features, the oddball romance Rushmore and, now, The Royal Tenenbaums, about a family of former prodigies. As with the earlier films, the new one is funny enough to be taken for a comedy, but there‘s a deep vein of melancholia to its drollery, an ineluctable air of sadness. Written, as all Anderson’s films are, with his close friend, the actor Owen Wilson, the film revisits the same passions that animate the earlier work — friendship, innocence, love, ennui — this time through adult children who, having never got over growing up, live in a haze of disappointment. Their pathos is that while their genius has faded, they can never succumb to ordinariness — the grind from 9 to 5, the right girl or boy to love — which is also their glory. Erstwhile genius has turned them into tragedians of their own existence, however farcical or quotidian, yet that early promise has been its own sort of benediction. Even at their most woebegone, the Tenenbaums live in radiant hope that their lives can again be something other, something different, something better.
This is no easy thing, either for an individual to live or for an artist to convey, particularly without pity or condescension. It‘s impossible if you don’t love your characters as Anderson does — generously, and with aching tenderness. For all their mistakes, missteps and spasms of outrageous narcissism, his gentle misfits remain human, never more than when at their worst: The Royal Tenenbaums begins with Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Huston) asking her husband, Royal (Gene Hackman), to move out of the house. Royal breaks the bad news to the couple‘s three young children — two boys, Chas and Richie, and a girl named Margot — while seated at the head of the family’s vast dining table. Framed against a swirl of red velvet wallpaper, his ubiquitous cigarette clamped in its holder, Royal comes across less like a grieving husband and father than like a chief operating officer who‘s not only accepted the truth of a losing proposition, but moved on already. ”It doesn’t,“ he admits with a shrug, ”look good.“ ”Was it our fault?“ asks one of the kids. ”No,“ Royal answers, before dispensing a nonchalant twist of the knife: ”Obviously we made certain sacrifices as a result of having children.“
Wearing a toupee that curls around the top of his head like a sleeping wombat, Hackman makes a peculiar father, though he‘s realer than most movie dads — meaner, too. The actor tends to play men who run cold or blistering hot, and who often embrace both extremes at once, which helps to explain why so many of them shiver with menace no matter what temperature they’re running. Hackman‘s Royal may not be a monster, at least by the child-rearing standards of the late-1970s backdrop against which the story is launched, but he’s oblivious, careless on the edge of cruelty. That Royal doesn‘t sentimentalize his three children, and wouldn’t begin to know how, means that he also doesn‘t condescend to them. For better and, often, for worse, he treats them like little adults, as equals — and sometimes, calamitously, as rivals. But all this fair play doesn’t leave much room for kindness. Royal dismisses one of Margot‘s fledgling theatrical efforts, then tries to bandage the wound with a lie that neither of them believes: ”That’s just one man‘s opinion.“ It’s Margot‘s 11th birthday, and she’s just received the gift of her own imperfection; it‘s a gift that will keep on giving.
In Anderson’s first feature, also titled Bottle Rocket (1996), there‘s a scene in which the character played by Owen Wilson, Dignan, decides to risk imprisonment in order to save a downed colleague. Dignan and his friends have just failed, sensationally, to rob a cold-storage company. They didn’t need the money, but they did need a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to feel special. Mostly, though, they needed one another. Dignan‘s friend (played by Owen’s brother, Luke Wilson) tries to stop him from going back in the building, but he refuses: ”They‘ll never catch me, man, ’cause I‘m fuckin’ innocent.“ He‘s caught, of course, but in doing so Dignan confirms his own freakish innocence, as well as his poignancy. In that instant he finds a reason for being, an escape hatch to a more perfect world, maybe even transcendence; he becomes, in another words, yet another American hopeful buoyed by the specter of his own promise. The moment may be fantasy, a reverie, but as with the Tenenbaum childhood, it glitters with possibility. In the new film, Owen Wilson returns, this time as Eli Cash, a friend of the Tenenbaum children who’s spent his entire life wanting to be one of them. Now a famous writer of anguished Cormac McCarthy–style prose, Eli still yearns to be a Tenenbaum, to find a place where he can safely hide from the outside world. Like Dignan, he longs for a way out of the here and now.
Set in a gently fictionalized New York (the taxis are all heaps from the Gypsy Cab Co.), The Royal Tenenbaums unfolds primarily inside the family‘s sprawling brownstone, a warren of startling color, fanciful bibelots and objets trouves. As in The Magnificent Ambersons, one of the story’s touchstones (Salinger‘s Glass family is another), the house tells a crucial part of the story, first through the grandeur of its turrets (there’s even a family flag), then 22 years later, after the children have grown, through its genteel dilapidation. By then, Royal is long gone and the children have scattered. Chas (Ben Stiller) is lost in his work; Richie (Luke Wilson) is literally adrift, a passenger on a transoceanic ship; back in the city, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) spends hours in a tub as her husband, Raleigh (Bill Murray), taps on the locked bathroom door. Each of the children has spectacularly failed, and failure has sealed them in solipsism: Margot enjoyed early success as a playwright but soon fizzled, while Richie went from tennis champion to burnout during one calamitous match. Entrepreneur Chas has endured a more brutal comeuppance: He lost his wife in a plane crash. Always the straightest Tenenbaum, he has become a neurotic protector of his sons, to the point where he can no longer distinguish between genuine peril and the bumps of everyday life.
Chas eventually figures out the difference, but only after he returns to the Tenenbaum home and surrenders to adulthood. In Rushmore, there‘s another prodigy who earns his comeuppance, losing a woman he loves to his surrogate father (Murray again); but in losing, he becomes the very child he’d desperately tried to outgrow. In Anderson‘s films, adults and children rarely figure out how to play the roles that age has assigned them, and who can blame them? In The Royal Tenenbaums the prodigies have become disappointed adults because they’re stuck in the dreams of childhood — stuck there precisely because the dreams were so seductive. We first meet the kids through a series of fast, funny montage sequences: There‘s Margot in fur and kohl eyeliner reading Chekhov and writing, Chas wheeling and dealing in Brooks Brothers, Richie racking up trophies. The sense of detail in these sequences is beautiful and fastidious, recalling the obsessiveness you sometimes see in children’s play, in the fantastic worlds they create from glass animals and figurines. But as the silky-voiced narrator (Alec Baldwin) guides us through these dioramas of precocious talent, it becomes increasingly evident that the museum is also something of a mausoleum.
It happens to all of us, the fall from grace. Much depends on what happens next, naturally, but much depends on how you remember it — as comedy, tragedy or, as Anderson has, both. The world of The Royal Tenenbaums initially seems as unreal and at times almost as precious as that inside a glass paperweight. And it‘s clear from the sheer verve — the giddiness, even — with which he films the children’s early years that Anderson is as comfortable tucked inside his meticulousness as the Tenenbaums are tucked inside the family home — he‘s more comfortable in a world of his own making than with the world beyond. But, like Chas, Richie and Margot, he’s starting to shake things up. By the time the children are grown, Anderson has loosened his style, almost as if he, too, were finally free of the constraints of so much early perfection. The framing seems less fastidious, the camera movements more gestural, while the vapor of self-congratulation that perfumed the Tenenbaums‘ childhood has been blown away by the truth of adult lives in all their pain and new-found grace. In a film that verges on greatness, it is a sign of terrific faith, as well as of Anderson’s promise as a director, that when one of the characters in The Royal Tenenbaums wears hospital pajamas after a detour into grief, the words over his heart read ”recovery area.“