Lacking a true consensus favorite, the film-buff population tends to look upon Wes Anderson’s work with great fondness, which is pretty amazing, considering the fact that we should all be tired of his “shtick” by now, to the point where cynical viewers have dismissed his movies by declaring that they all look the same. But while his avid supporters have cited directors as varied as François Truffaut, Preston Sturges, and Hal Ashby as influences on the Bottle Rocket auteur, the “they all look the same” slam sounds a lot like a charge that’s often leveled at Yasujirô Ozu, and Ozu is one reference point that’s not cited often enough. Looking past cosmetic similarities and glaring differences, it took about 20 years for Ozu to really get his routine down, but, like Anderson, he abhorred complacency, so that his repetitions always seemed awake, alive, and newly conceived.
As fond of Anderson’s work as anyone I can think of, I hold (what I take to be) the minority view that he started out as a promising young artist, and has, since then, only gotten better: Moonrise Kingdom, for example, is absent of the longueurs in The Royal Tenenbaums that seem dramatically necessary but stall its otherwise headlong momentum. He’s now, as he’s always been, a rare bird, the filmmaker who knows exactly what kind of film he wants to make, how he wants it make it, and who’s sure we’ll enjoy his meticulous/idiosyncratic worldview—and who is, more often than not, absolutely correct in that assumption. The Royal Tenenbaums is embarrassed with riches, and richness. Anderson’s ability to temper snap-to-attention precision with genuine warmth galvanizes every square inch of every lucidly composed frame. One is awestruck, as well, by his all-star cast, which comes across initially as a miracle of agent logistics and conference calls, and ultimately as a triumph of ensemble management. And then you have the custom programs of classical and pop music, the costume design and art direction, and, finally, the masterstroke, Anderson’s innate ability to lob curveballs at the audience, to choose the most opportune moments to go against his own, fastidiously cultivated grain.
If there’s one other thing that’s remained consistent through Anderson’s work, it’s that he tends to revisit a single theme in each movie, that of the thorny individualist who must eventually learn that his or her choices, like it or not, affect others—sometimes profoundly, and not always for the best. This time-honored theme, one of the main reasons he’s often linked with J.D. Salinger, here concerns the insular and ethically slithery Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), whose petty—but unflappably cheery—callousness toward his gifted progeny has had long-term ill effects on the entire Tenenbaum clan, as well as those that orbit their Archer Avenue home. What’s telling is that the progressive lines of the plot don’t require Royal to undergo any cathartic change, and while those around him may come to realize that they exhibit Royal-like character deficiencies, life lessons are scarce. Miraculously, the character transitions (hardness to softness, icy to thawed, closed to open) we expect in movies seem to occur naturally in The Royal Tenenbaums, as a result of singular incidents and cataclysmic interruptions, as opposed to clichéd screenwriting structures.
Some Criterion Blu-ray upgrades are better than others. In the case of the the studio's favorite American son's third feature, which was given a spine number less than a year after it premiered at the 2001 New York Film Festival, the high-definition transfer is one of their best this year, with flawless picture (clean, bright, and razor-sharp) and a deep-dish, immersive sound field. Sure, it's regrettable that Wes Anderson wasn't allowed to use the original Beatles version of "Hey Jude" over the opening sequence, as he did in the rough cut, but there's nobody to blame for that—nobody but the lawyers.
With a kit that's as dense and precise as a screen capture from one of the director's films, Criterion has upgraded all the supplements from their 2002 DVD with the appropriate level of high-definition. Proving once again that they know how certain viewers want to explore certain films, the supplements are tailored to viewers who are likely drawn to Anderson's unique brand of artifice and pictorial design. There's a fake "Peter Bradley Show" that is, if you can believe it, even more awkward than the one that was made for the film; there's also an exploration of the paintings and other artwork that appears in the film, a making-of featurette that focuses on Anderson's direction, a terrific commentary by the director, and an appreciative essay by critic (and longtime Anderson champion) Kent Jones.
The Royal Tenenbaums remains Wes Anderson's biggest commercial success; it's also one of his best films, and the Criterion Collection has brought it into their high-definition stable with great aplomb.