Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums unfolds like a regal fairy tale. A king has been thrust from his family’s kingdom and hopes to claw his way back. Anderson’s respect for individualism means carefully isolating one Tenenbaum from the other; all are colorful and singular composites of a remarkable higher order, dignified by the director’s stunning attention to detail (like the family’s weather-beaten banner that waves gently atop their townhouse). The Royal Tenenbaums is a film of rare beauty, alive with humanity and crippling sadness. It earns its joy because Anderson can make an otherwise ancient cliché crackle as if it were new. Take Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), who is tactless but whose love for his family is absolute; he’s the distant father who’ll conspire for your love but earns it with a simple kiss on the cheek: “Thank you my sweet boy.” At its simplest, Anderson’s latest masterpiece becomes a paean to second chances.
Anderson carefully sets up the Tenenbaums as martyrs to their self-contained upper-class milieu. Etheline (Anjelica Huston) is Royal’s ex-wife, now set to marry an academic widower, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), whose love she was blind to for over a decade. Adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the literary genius whose career success comes at the price of her emotional isolation. Chas (Ben Stiller) strips the father-son dynamic of ecstasy once his wife’s death gives way to his paranoiac mentality. Richie (Luke Wilson) is the fallen tennis idol that equates failure with his father’s absence and his muted love for Margot. As children they bid farewell to Royal by way of a conference call, a humorous scenario through which Anderson emphasizes the notion of youth having to reconcile adult pain within a less-than-warm environ.
Margot, a closeted smoker since 12, hides herself from the world within the confines of her bathroom. Anderson’s deftly situates the character as a damsel in distress; just as a youthful flight from a boarding school conjures images of Rupunzel letting down her hair, Etheline is allowed entrance into Margot’s secret chamber via a key thrust beneath the bathroom door. Margot may excuse her pain by distancing herself from family (“It’s okay, we’re not actually related”) yet her need for love is heartbreaking. Chas moves into his mother’s home with his two children (Ari and Uzi), unwilling to admit he is consumed by fear. Resentful of Chas’s vie for preferential treatment, Margot follows suit by moving out of the run-down home and into the Tenenbaum house. Richie is last to arrive, leaving a career behind to negotiate illness, drug addition (that of Owen Wilson’s Eli Cash), and incest.
Now that the Tenenbaums have reunited, the atonement ritual begins. Etheline dusts a skeleton she’s discovered at an architectural site. Possibly discovered in a populated area of New York City, the corpse subtly emphasizes the emotional toil of the film’s characters and the legacy of their pain. Indeed, any member of the Tenenbaum family could have been buried beneath that surface when Etheline stares at her discovery and plaintively mutters, “Note the decomposition levels.” Despite the film’s general air of hopelessness, though, Anderson leaves room for reparations. As Margot says, “We’re on the same team.” The family trudges along only to have a near-death experience force them into cramped quarters. Anderson’s most lyrical moment seems to liken suicide to sacrifice; in essence, loss (here, that of human hair) must precede enlightenment.
Anderson’s classical framing inspires awe: Miguel Calderón’s paintings speak volumes about Owen Wilson’s drug addicted Eli; Margot’s distance is emphasized with shots that virtually shrink her in size; Margot and Eli become the precise composites of Anderson’s symmetrical framing while standing atop an elevated walkway. The director’s nostalgic rendering of the past is so lucid that the discovery of decade-old cigarettes hidden within a chimney brick is all that’s needed to understand Margot’s lifelong isolation. And for all his literary references, Anderson always finds time to take jabs at his scholarly worldview. Margot is married to Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), a psychiatrist who conducts an on-going life experiment on super-genius Dudley Heinsbergen (Stephen Lea Sheppard), bystander and witness to the film’s chaotic family proceedings. Raleigh fancies himself Margot’s romantic dupe; turning to his lady, he says, “You’ve made a cuckold of me.”
Eli, also a writer, breaks down on a Charlie Rose-type television show. Trying to excuse the failure of his book Wildcats, he claims that it was “written in a kind of obsolete vernacular.” Forget Anderson’s acute ear for dialogue, the more urgent matter is the concept that language only becomes obsolete if it cannot be spoken with joy. Margot’s winning of the Braverman Grant as a high school freshman may strike an elitist cord—must Anderson’s youngest characters also be so infatuated with and inextricably bound to success? But a touching moment between Margot and Richie inside a tent acknowledges the woman’s uncanny command for the spare and poetic use of language. Unbeknown to the family, Margot once married a man in Jamaica. Before professing his love for his sister, Richie asks how she met her first husband. She replies, “I met him in the ocean, he came out to me in a canoe.” That’s all she needs to tell Richie for him to grasp her past, just as that’s all the spectator needs to confirm that her younger, troubled self could have won 10 Braverman grants without batting an eyelash.
The Royal Tenenbaums may not be overtly spiritual but Anderson understands the sacredness of communion. After Chas chases Eli through the Tenenbaum home, both men land (on their backs and perfectly side by side) in an adjacent garden where pebbles break their falls and bonzai trees reside. The family’s return to joy is gracefully signified by everything from a “Recovery Room” outfit to the molting of a falcon’s feathers. Royal earns his love just as Richie mounts his father’s prized boar’s head back onto a wall that stoically wears the Tenenbaum history. If Etheline ever doubted her future with Henry, love’s reminder is the tie that accidentally clings to the man’s glasses. Anderson understands the sacredness of such moments—like Uzi lying down next to his father, a fall into a ditch or the return of a wayward falcon. These accidents remind the Tenenbaum clan of their mortality and their ability to love. More importantly, though, Anderson’s obsession with failure becomes so tightly bound with hope that death itself becomes a vehicle to joy, a humbling happily ever after.