Scott: By now, Wes Anderson’s meticulous, decorous style has become both instantly recognizable and widely imitated, nearly to the point of parody. But while The Royal Tenenbaums has that minutiae—the Tenenbaum house alone, from wallpaper to themed rooms to game closet, has been thought-through to every crevice—there’s a danger in believing that Anderson is so caught up in the pieces that he doesn’t see the whole puzzle. Anderson specializes in ensemble pieces, and part of The Royal Tenenbaum’s effectiveness is that he isn’t interested in being democratic about it, but instead thinks about the entire cast (the Tenenbaum family, basically) as an organism composed of many moving parts. Here’s an example: Of the three Tenenbaum children, Chas gets the least attention, because there’s more focus on the love triangle between Margot, Richie, and Eli Cash, as well as Royal’s attempts to reintegrate himself into the family. But I’d argue that Chas’ line, “I’ve had a rough year, Dad,” is the single most powerful moment in this or any Anderson film to date, and that relates as much to the melancholy of the complete organism as it does to Chas’ year in particular.
Another thing worth mentioning: Anderson’s economy of style. I doubt I’m alone in being more affected by his films on second, third, or fourth viewing, and that’s owed to the density of information that Anderson packs into every frame. That’s not to imply that they’re overwhelming, like Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books, or other such incomprehensible experiments, but rather to say that films like The Royal Tenenbaums are the product of heavy creative investment, and the payoff can be little more than a line or a look.
Noel: Oh man, you’re not kidding about Chas. I didn’t connect to The Royal Tenenbaums emotionally the first time I saw it, but just as would later happen with The Life Aquatic, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom, I’ve found The Royal Tenenbaums deeper and more moving with every viewing. The second time I watched Tenenbaums, I was practically a pool of mush by the time “I’ve had a rough year” rolled around. This viewing—my fifth or sixth, I forget which—I lost it in the first 15 minutes, when Chas’ son carefully climbs down from the bunkbed to sleep next to his dad. It’s easy to point to Anderson’s fastidiousness and preoccupation with miniaturization and say that his movies are phony, or empty. But as we’ll get into more later, I find that Anderson is working as a cartoonist might: representing complex ideas and emotions via easily understood icons.
Nathan: Anderson’s films are so meticulously thought-out and reward such close repeat viewing that there were moments re-watching The Royal Tenenbaums when I felt like I might go into a Room 237-style wormhole and start assigning intense metaphoric symbolism into every frame of the film. I think this is a reaction being given so much data: Our minds begin to see these glorious, methodically worked-out tableaus as puzzles that must be figured out, even if there ultimately is no answer to his riddles.
Keith: Noel, I’ve had experiences similar to yours with Anderson films in the past, most distinctly with The Life Aquatic. The first time through, I thought it was a really ambitious effort; the second time moved me deeply. As to why, I think it is a matter of getting a deeper appreciation of how it all fits together. Maybe the first time you see The Royal Tenenbaums, you don’t note that in an early scene, Margot is holding a copy of Between The Buttons, the record that will play when she and Richie come to an agreement about their future years later. Or that Chas’ extreme grieving, which seems like a quirky bit of black comedy at first, will serve as an undertone for the whole movie. It helps to be able to step back and see the whole picture.
Noel: I recently wrote about my problem with indie films overloading on backstory, but The Royal Tenenbaums to me is an example of how to fill in meaningful details about characters without treating those details like little secrets that explain everything. Anderson shows the past casting a shadow over the present, by beginning the movie with an extended flashback and then dropping in little reminiscences throughout the film; but the flashbacks are entertaining in and of themselves, and Tenenbaum family’s old business doesn’t prevent them from moving forward, however awkwardly. Having established what the Tenenbaums have been through, Anderson then keeps referring back to their history in how the characters comport themselves, without needing to keep underlining what it all means. Royal’s monumental insensitivity to his children, the way Chas’ sons are always accompanied by their dog Buckley, Eli Cash’s phony machismo: These are all fine shading to what’s already been established.
By the way, this is rarely acknowledged anymore, but the sitcom Arrested Development was, in a lot of ways, an attempt to bring Wes Anderson’s storytelling techniques to TV. The elaborate family legends, the quick flashback gags, and the way characters are instantly identifiable by what they wear all connect Arrested Development to The Royal Tenenbaums, as does Arrested Development’s occasional flash of sentiment. (Michael Bluth = Chas Tenenbaum?) And because Arrested Development influenced just about every single-camera sitcom of the past decade, that makes The Royal Tenenbaums (and Rushmore, to an extent) the Patient Zero for contemporary television comedy.
Nathan: Definitely, Noel. I remember when Arrested Development first came out, the reductive line on it was that it was The Royal Tenenbaums meets Capturing The Friedmans, which isn’t entirely untrue. I think part of the reason the narration, flashbacks, and digressions work so well here, and in Arrested Development, is because both are fundamentally literary in their storytelling, so literary devices suit them particularly well.
Keith: At the center of all of Wes Anderson’s films there is a family, be it of the flesh-and-blood or surrogate variety. But in The Royal Tenenbaums, the subject of family—what defines it, what keeps it together, and what might make it break—is pretty much the whole movie. The title is significant. Calling it The Royal Tenenbaums is more than just a quaintly aristocratic way to specify what branch of the Tenenbaum family we’re talking about; this is the story of a father who’s seemingly made too many mistakes to redeem himself, but who attempts to do so anyway. And without getting too pop-psychological about it, the film pins many of the Tenenbaums’ problems on Royal’s neglect. The kids sprouted but never flourished because he fell down on the job. Yet for all the strain this has placed on the Tenenbaums as a family, they remain a family, just barely. In Anderson’s films, it takes little to fracture a family, but it takes a lot to break it.
Noel: One question I always have whenever I watch The Royal Tenenbaums is whether any of the siblings (besides Richie and Margot) have any affection for each other. The children rally around each other in the second half of the film, but early on, they seem bound by the same petty jealousies that likely defined their childhood relationships. (Just look at the disdainful way Chas turns Richie’s framed poster of himself around when he finds it in his children’s room.) They’re all in thrall to the idea of “the Tenenbaums” as Royal and Ethel once defined it, back when Ethel was writing books about her little geniuses, and Royal was making sure everyone knew Margot wasn’t a blood-Tenenbaum. When Chas moves back in to the house and Margot asks why he’s “allowed to do that,” her petulant tone is both childish and poignant. It’s as though the only reason she grew up and moved out in the first place is because she thought she was required to, and now that she knows she has the option to try and get back to the golden age, she can’t imagine doing anything else.
Nathan: The title The Royal Tenenbaums seems apt as well, in that Royal’s fatal flaw is his narcissism and his inability to see his children and wife as anything more than an extension of himself. So his struggle and his journey over the course of the film is to value his family as individuals whom he’s deeply hurt, rather than as extensions of his own glory. And that requires embracing vulnerability and humility, which are utterly foreign to him. He isn’t just learning to be a father, he’s learning to be a decent human being.
Scott: Are we putting too much on Royal here as the catalyst for the family’s decline? In terms of the children’s achievements, Royal’s departure does nothing to stop them from succeeding. After he announces the separation, Chas, Richie, and Margot still thrive in their individual disciplines, and it isn’t until later, when adulthood can no longer sustain their precociousness, that the Tenenbaums fall off the ledge. Royal’s greatest sin in this regard is not being there when they fall; we can see that Richie’s dramatic on-court meltdown is motivated by Margot marrying Raleigh St. Clair, but we also learn later that Royal disappeared from Richie’s life after the match. I’d say their failures are all but inevitable—how often do accomplished children in the media spotlight segue into success as adults, too?—but Royal left them that much more emotionally ill-equipped to deal with the aftermath.
Nathan: All of Wes Anderson’s movies are melancholy to some extent, but no film he’s made is more exquisitely melancholy than The Royal Tenenbaums. Depression seems as much a birthright to the Tenenbaums as genius and eccentricity, and the three are inextricably intertwined. The Royal Tenenbaums is a haunting, soulful group portrait of depression that captures despair on a visceral level, most unforgettably in Richie’s suicide attempt. But depression colors everything in The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s woven into the fabric of the film, and I’ve found that that melancholy has only deepened with age and time.
Noel: I think this goes back to what I was saying earlier, about the Tenenbaums being blocked at every turn by their own memorabilia. The past just weighs on these people, pinning them down, keeping them from moving. I don’t want to go too far into the role of armchair psychologist, but we’ve been talking about The Royal Tenenbaums as a Wes Anderson film when we really should give more than a little credit to his co-writer and old friend Owen Wilson; given Wilson’s own history with depression, I wonder how much of that sense of deep, stifling sorrow is attributable to him.
Scott: I agree with Nathan that depression runs deep in The Royal Tenenbaums, almost to the point where it’s like a virus that consumes the entire family. Royal’s absence means they’re all dealing with a broken home, and it registers in the Tenenbaum brownstone itself, which seems a little worn-down and stuck in another time and place, apart from the modern world. They move apart from each other as adults, but failure trails them like Pig Pen’s filth—cue Peanuts music, the ultimate soundtrack for quirky melancholia—and they need to get back together to get some measure of contentment back.
Keith: It’s also an example of how masterful Anderson is at establishing and sustaining a mood. That was evident from the beginning of Bottle Rocket, which cut its deadpan quirk with a sense of deeply felt, but often unexpressed emotions. Other films might use a song like “Needle In The Hay” to create unearned gravitas. Here, it plays like a natural extension of the tone Anderson sets from the beginning.
Noel: From the early shot of a plastic-covered library book getting stamped and checked out, The Royal Tenenbaums traffics heavily in imagery that carries strong impressions of childhood. I don’t know about you three, but I can almost smell that book, and can imagine pulling it off the shelf at the dinky little public-library branch near where I grew up. The Tenenbaum children’s bedrooms are filled with toys, games, drawings, and outdated technology, preserved from when they moved out—like miniature museums of a more carefree life. I’ve often felt that Anderson’s characters are essentially children’s-book heroes who grew up and are now in a universe very different from the one in which they once thrived. They’re still wearing their old uniforms, and toting their same old baggage, all of which has made them ill-prepared to coexist with actual adults.
Keith: Are they any better prepared when the film ends? I find the end of The Royal Tenenbaums satisfying, but also a little curious. Everyone seems less tortured than before, but it almost seems as if they’ve retreated into the cocoon from which they emerged. Margot, for instance, writes another play, but nobody much likes it, and that seems to be pretty much where everyone else is with their lives: They haven’t triumphed, just carried on. Anderson does that quite a bit, those happy endings that still feel a little downbeat. Mr. Fox and his family and friends triumph over Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, but their land of plenty is a supermarket owned by the same villains. Sam gets a father and order returns to Suzy’s house, but the absolute freedom of their Moonrise Kingdom is now just a painting and a memory. And so on. Family in Anderson’s movies, whether it’s blood relations or the extended kind, provides the sometimes maddening but necessary restrictions his characters need to survive the chaos of the outside world.
Scott: You make some good points, Keith, about the retreat back to the family home and how it represents comfort more than triumph, though I hasten to add that Etheline’s marriage to Henry stands to bring something vital and new to the Tenenbaum household. (That said, the ending is more melancholy than the similar ending to Rushmore, where Max and company have experienced genuine growth and understanding, and the mood is much brighter.) As for the childhood/adulthood dynamic, nothing has really changed, other than Margot (and presumably her siblings) getting the impetus to carry on—even if she isn’t exactly moving forward. In a way, it’s only natural that the Tenenbaum children cling to past success, much in the way we all seek to relive old glories, or get back to the point in our lives when we were happiest. They just happen to have been kid geniuses.
Nathan: For me, the carrying on is triumphing. The Tenenbaums will always be a melancholy brood, but at the very least, they seem to have moved beyond the crippling stasis of the beginning of the film, on to something at least a little more sustainable and hopeful.
Keith: Looked at in the context of Anderson’s career, The Royal Tenenbaums seems like the sort of film he had to make after Rushmore. Or at least exactly the sort of film he should have made. Anderson probably could have just made whimsical, wistful comedies of adolescence to diminishing returns, but he seems to have recognized that he couldn’t improve on Rushmore’s perfection. This is a grown-up movie, or at least a film about growing up, even if for Royal, that doesn’t happen until near the end of his life. It’s just as funny and painful as such a film should be.
Noel: Keith, it’s also an impressive step up in scope from Rushmore, which itself is a more involved production than Bottle Rocket. (Those inserts of Max’s many clubs in Rushmore didn’t shoot themselves.) Think about the number of flashbacks, props, and characters in The Royal Tenenbaums, some of which exist onscreen only for a matter of seconds. Then remember that while this wasn’t a low-budget movie, it didn’t exactly break the bank, either. Anderson has always reminded me of Max Fischer, commanding his troupe of players to come up with inexpensive solutions that will allow him to realize his vision.
And speaking of those players, it’s too bad we haven’t seen Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, or Danny Glover again in Anderson’s films. They all would’ve made good permanent additions to the company.
Scott: We’ve talked about how touching this movie is, but I’d like to take a moment to note how funny it is, too, specifically in its conception of Eli Cash as a gentle parody of Cormac McCarthy. The reading of his latest book nails the McCarthy prose (“‘Vámonos, amigos,’ he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddlecock”) and the Sunday Magazine cover of Eli with a snake in each hand seems to anticipate where Wilson would take his surfer-boy male model in Zoolander. But if there’s a bigger laugh than Eli’s description of his new Custer book in any of Anderson’s films, I can’t think of it: “Well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t?” It’s that question mark at the end that sells it.
Nathan: Eli Cash is a hilarious character, and a wonderful illustration of what Wilson can do when he has material better than, say, The Internship or Marley And Me. But Eli Cash is also a wonderfully sad character. For me, there may be no more poignant or heartbreaking moment than when Eli says, “I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum.” He fills the line with such naked yearning and tenderness, even if we know all too well that being a Tenenbaum is the furthest thing from a recipe for happiness. But that doesn’t keep Eli from longing for it all the same.
Don’t miss yesterday’s Keynote on The Royal Tenenbaums’ family values as expressed through two perfectly chosen songs from its soundtrack. And tomorrow, Noel Murray takes a look at Wes Anderson’s side career as a director of commercials.