Written by RACHEL HANLY (edited by KATERINA THEOCHAROUS)
Anyone who knows me knows that I adore Wes Anderson films. The visuals, the humour, the characters, the extensive use of Bill Murray- I love it all, and The Royal Tenenbaums is definitely up there on my list. Considered by many to be Anderson’s magnum opus, and co-written with his long-time friend Owen Wilson, the film is not just visually stunning but includes incredible performances by a formidable cast. Anderson’s creativity, attention to detail and offbeat sense of humour have been celebrated, referenced and parodied time after time, and contribute to a unique style that is undeniably his. But the part of this film in particular that really stays with you is the pervasive sense of melancholy, weaving itself through the plot and silently persisting through whatever is thrown at you.
The Royal Tenenbaums is named after Royal Tenenbaum himself, the estranged patriarch of the Tenenbaum family who is equal amounts frustrating and lovable (played excellently by Gene Hackman). The plot centres around him faking a terminal stomach cancer and returning to the family home, triggering a chaotic family reunion in his attempts to win back his wife Etheline (played by the talented Anjelica Huston). Royal and Etheline’s three children, Chas, Margot and Richie, are previous child prodigies still struggling to come to terms with Royal’s neglect, as well as the tragedies in their own lives. They are all adults at the time of the movie, but they act and dress like children, feeling out of place in a world in which chance and fate is cruel to them.
Chas Tenenbaum, played by Ben Stiller, is an entrepreneurial genius whose wife died in a tragic plane crash a year ago, leaving him with two sons and a manic sense of overprotectiveness. Stiller brings a strangely relatable quality to the role, and, like all the characters in the film, you just want to give him a hug. Meanwhile, Gwyneth Paltrow acts in possibly her most touching role to date as the adopted Margot Tenenbaum – an ex-playwright who now spends her days as a recluse, married to a much older man and stuck with the practised idiosyncrasies of a young girl affecting the façade of a sophisticated woman. The most memorable performance, however, is Luke Wilson as Richie Tenenbaum, a tragic but fresh take on the washed-up athlete archetype who continues to wear his tennis outfit and headband long after his mysterious breakdown at the peak of his career. It’s a raw and poignant portrayal of depression and emotional strain, possibly in part, due to co-writer Owen Wilson’s own experience with depression.
Other notable performances outside the main family include Owen Wilson himself as their swaggering childhood friend Eli Cash, Danny Glover in an unexpected role as Etheline’s accountant and love interest, and Bill Murray as Margot’s faithful, pathetic husband. Set to a mellow, nostalgic and occasionally playful soundtrack including The Beatles, Nico, The Velvet Underground and The Clash, the film evokes longing for a different and unknown time whilst remaining in a familiar setting. There’s a grunginess to Anderson’s earlier films that I feel doesn’t come through in his latest endeavours (see: Grand Budapest, despite its stunning visuals) that makes ridiculous characters somehow more human, and it is their emotions and interactions which drive the story. Character quirks and inside jokes are continuously referenced, making you feel like an observer who, for a short period of time, is allowed intimate access into the lives of this enigmatic family.
In quintessential Wes Anderson style, zany plot developments and memorable character design overly a persistent sense of despair, which eventually advances into a type of catharsis. His chaotic, sentimental method of storytelling portrays dysfunction and depression in a way that reminds us of the power of trauma and the ease with which the eccentricity of these characters masks their pain. Their humanity is clearly evident, and as we watch the film, we feel along with them. But keep in mind that you are only a visitor, and once the story ends, with it closes the little window that these characters have allowed you to quietly watch them through.