Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Royal Tenenbaums

Dir. Wes Anderson

Here's how it goes: you sit down to watch a Wes Anderson movie. You are immediately apprehended by the personality of it. The silliness and childish nature of his cinematography and his relentlessly creative mind. Between the epic goofiness, the vintage music (and apparel), the recognizable faces (there's usually plenty of them), and the smart but unpretentious banter of his characters you begin to think that the name Wes Anderson might be synonymous with pop culture. And you wouldn't be totally wrong in this supposition. In 13 years Anderson has produced six full length feature films (his most recent, Mr. Fox, is slated to premier in November of this year), each more memorable and quirky than the one before. As I was saying though you'll get about 90% of the way through whichever Anderson flick you're watching and start thinking “OK, I've giggled enough for one night, when am I going to get something other than charming wit?” And then BAM! Emotion! Out of nowhere, Anderson proves that he can still hit you in the gut and get an honest reaction out of you. Not only that, he's been building you up to this moment for the length of the film. Wes Anderson has punked you.

I can't believe I just wrote that. Moving on, The Royal Tenenbaums is probably the penultimate example of Anderson's greatness in writing and filming. He manages to pack every good idea he's every written down on a cocktail napkin at a boring house party into a single film with a cast list that alone probably costs the studio more than it cost to make the majority of French New-Wave films, combined. That's Anderson's style. If you're like me you run down the ensemble cast list of any film and chances are after you get past the first two or three names you stop recognizing and stop reading. Not so with Anderson's films. The Royal Tenenbaums sports not one or two but all of the following: Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover, Ben Stiller, Anjelica Huston and Gene Hackman. You know...just to name a few...The miracle is that Anderson makes it work. I mean, what a nightmare, all that ego and talent in one place. The cast is essentially split in two between actors who are consistently or at least some-what consistently great (Murray, Hackman, Owen Wilson) and actors who when given a great script perform to its standards and when given a terrible script take it because they are shameless (Ben Stiller). Still, every actor in the cast steps up to the challenge of making a quirky (there's that word again, sorry) family drama into a remarkable tale of love and forgiveness, and the stupid things we do for our family.

Speaking of family, Anderson's films are a bit of a family affair in and of themselves. With none of the actors he's consistently worked with (Murray, both Wilsons, Huston) has he managed to form a John Ford-John Wayne type of inseparable bond, but for a man with a lot on his mind during filming it does make things easier to know who you're dealing with, especially when those people you're dealing with are ingrained in the subconscious of Hollywood. It also makes for a pleasant experience for the viewer, having a certain set of expectations for each of Anderson's films and having those expectations fulfilled and exceeded. In The Royal Tenenbaums Anderson extricates intimate performances from Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow while balancing, on the other end of the spectrum, the human (by way of bastard) Gene Hackman and the irresponsible-drugged out-Western writing Owen Wilson. With the exception of Huston's character (Mrs. Tenenbaum) no one really gets left behind in the film. Each character exhibits the kind of growth that's expected from a major motion picture. The miracle is not that it happens. The miracle is that it happens to almost everybody and in a fashion that is clean and uncomplicated, if not slightly unrealistic. However, this is excusable as Anderson clearly seeks to eschew realism in favor of fun and overall visual and emotional impact. With The Royal Tenenbaums Anderson has drawn a vivid caricature of the modern family unit and shown how the only way it functions is by not functioning at all.

This review is pretty superfluous. I don't need to tell you to go see The Royal Tenenbaums or any of Anderson's movies for that matter (especially since this one came out 8 years ago). I don't need to tell you how the film unfolds like a 19th century Russian novel, only funny instead of depressing. And I certainly don't need to tell you that Anderson pays an almost compulsive amount of attention to the details of his film. The angles, the sets, the background stories that allow you to connect with, or at least vaguely understand, these larger than life characters. What should be pointed out though is the level of sophistication behind this film. Anderson is a young, eager director. He hasn't even broke 40 yet and he's already made several highly acclaimed films and shows no sign of slowing down. It makes sense. Some people are restlessly creative. They need to be constantly inventing things in order to satisfy themselves. That's not all Anderson has, though. He's a visionary. The way his films elegantly glide along, with a perfect synchronization of comedic and dramatic timing, shows that he has organized the crazy amount of detail in his films very precisely. They are pleasurable to the eye and to the id. They reinforce cultural values while simultaneously introducing new means of thinking about those values. The Royal Tenenbaums takes a lot of pretense and boils it down to a dense, pleasurable, and colorful cinematic experience.

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