If anyone has seen a Wes Anderson film, it's an experience you're not likely to forget in a hurry. The characters are just the little bit left of centre, the plot is just a little strange and the script is just a little bit completely insane. And this is his masterpiece.
The Royal Tenenbaums documents the lives of three "highly gifted" children and their family, extending to their friend and neighbour Eli, to-be stepfather Henry, brother-in-law Raleigh, Raleigh's test subject Dudley, the family butler Pagoda and other assorted "family" members.
The first thing to know about Wes Anderson's film is that it is, very definitely, Wes Anderson's film. Despite the powerhouse ensemble, Anderson's vision is clearly visible throughout the whole picture, both in his direction and in his script. His peculiar framing techniques, notably the ridiculously wide shots which include only the subject head and shoulders, aren't used to intentionally distract, rather to point out the subtle absurdity of the situation. His fluid style extends to glimpses of cinema verite style but is more controlled than the shaky cam we see more of today. He is able to transition from formalist to realist in a heartbeat and the thought behind every shot is palpable. In other words, this, especially in terms of direction, is a hell of a film. He is also able to add moments of humour or extra emotion to a scene simply by moving the camera a few degrees. The way he keeps the scene emotionlessly static during a few more heartrending scenes is restraint at its finest. And despite the obscure angles and strange framing, this is one of the overriding factors in the film: restraint. Rather than point out every little thing or make sure there's a close-up for the audience's sake, Anderson trusts his audience enough to let them figure it out for themselves. This makes multiple viewings not only a must but a joy as deeper and deeper levels of meaning and humour become apparent each time.
The same can be said of the script. After each viewing, new jokes make themselves known, new levels of emotion can be discovered. Anderson's bone-dry deadpan in many situation works to great avail, especially in the humour side of things. Anderson also makes a very important distinction in his film: many of the moments may seem absurd, even surreal, but none of them ever excced the limitations of the possible. Each situation or moment is plausible in light of the characters which makes it all the more hilarious. Anderson's script is, first and foremost, a comedy and he is able to wring humour out of the most banal of situations, whether it's finding a javalina or walking into a closet. Secondly, though, it is a drama, and Wes is able to add in some truly beautiful moments as well as emotionally harrowing. Don't be surprised if you find yourself laughing and crying at the same time, at the same thing. Richie's bathroom sequence is one of the most amazing in the film and the ending is a beautiful example of indie weirdness with true emotion. Anderson's ability to juggle such a variety of complex relationships is truly commendable as well. He never relies on cliche or uses the obvious setup, despite having a huge interlocking network of characters on hand. Chas' fractured relationship with Royal together with his slowly devolving mental state is beautifully executed and pays off brilliantly.
Despite the director's prowess and the incredible script, a lot of the film relies on the cast. Thankfully, everyone seems to have decided to save their best performances for this film. Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson play the three children and are each amazing in their portrayals. Ben Stiller, especially, shows a maturity of performance and depth that you won't find in the likes of Zoolander, as well as finding the humour in every situation. In many ways he is the straight man to a lot of the cast, especially his father. Speaking of whom, Gene Hackman plays Royal, the eccentric/borderline insane patriach of the Tenenbaums. Estranged from his wife and childre, Royal is running out of money and so takes to deception to win his way back into the family. Hackman's performance in the film is one of those that you only get once every ten years. He is at once loveable and detestable, sympathetic and despicable and so much larger than the screen he's on. He brings an air of gravitas to the role which makes him believable and enigmatic. It's a brilliant performance which combines a keen comedic sense with a bombastic disposition and he pulls it off without a single bum note. Gwyneth Paltrow's performance is strangely restrained, lacking the charming smile which has gained her fans worldwide, trading it in for an almost bored quality where everything is unnecessary and a chore to get through. Even though she has a long line of fantastic films, her performance here is so beautifully measured, this may be her best. Luke Wilson's Richie is fantastic as well, though he doesn't have the emotional moment which many of the other roles are afforded. Where Hackman's deception finally gives way to true emotion, Stiller's rage gives way to breaking down and Paltrow's disconnection gives way to feelings, Wilson's zen-like attitude doesn't give way, visibly, to any specific emotion. Despite his "needle in the hay" scene having great impact emotionally, his detached sensibility stays intact, outwardly, throughout everything. This makes his performance all the more impressive as the emotion which occassionally leaks out speaks volumes as to what's going on underneath. It's a tribute to his performance that we are able to see this happening at all. The rest of the cast turn in fantastic supporting roles, especially Bill Murray and Anjelica Huston. Owen Wilson also turns a great performance, as does Danny Glover. The ensemble nature of the film means that each performance has its own specific nuance which can be appreciated more and more on repeat viewings.
Anderson's use of music in the film is fantastically diverse and inventive to a fault. Beginning with the Mutato Muzika Orchestra's version of Hey Jude, the songs become more eclectic as the film goes on, but not for the sake of being diverse in itself. Each song works within the crux of the scene, adding emotion and atmosphere equally. Soundtrack standouts include Needle in the Hay by Elliot Smith and Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard by Paul Simon.
The Royal Tenenbaums is beautifully planned, designed and executed and only gets better after repeat viewings. Having Alec Baldwin as a narrator doesn't hurt either.
It's a toss up between the bathroom scene and the ending montage but I'm going to say the ending for sheer emotional weight.
How long have you been a smoker?
I think you should quit.
Where's that red one gonna go?
You've made a cuckold of me my dear. Again.
How come he gets to do that?
So am I!
So are you what?
Everyone's against me.
It's your fault man.
I know but dammit, I want this family to love me. How much money you got?
I don't have.
What? You're broke? How are we gonna pay for this room?
He has the cancer.
That's just one man's opinion!
Four minutes, forty-eight seconds. We're all dead. Burned to a crisp.
What did you say?
Hmm? I didn't say anything.
When? Right now?
She's balling Eli Cash.
Margot said you told her I was in love with her.
Why would she tell you that when I specifically asked her not to?
I might ask you the same thing.
Yes, and rightfully so.
Anybody interested in grabbing a couple of burgers and hittin' the cemetery?