Release: 5th December 2016
Royal Tenenbaum and his wife, Etheline had three children – Chas, Margot, and Richie and then they separated. Chas started buying real estate in his early teens and seemed to have an almost preternatural understanding of international finance. Margot was a playwright and received a Braverman Grant of $50,000 in the ninth grade. Richie was a junior champion tennis player and won the U.S. Nationals three years in a row. Virtually all memory of the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums was subsequently erased by two decades of betrayal, failure, and disaster.
Wes Anderson’s magnum opus never truly ages. The Royal Tenenbaums is as vital now as it was when it first hit screens in 2001. What makes this pop-up book of a movie so special is that in spite of its kooky vibe, and assortment of oddball characters – or even it’s intellectually elitist New York veneer – it is a universally accessible tale about family ties and melancholy. Behind it all, The Royal Tenenbaums has more heart than it wants you to know. Oh, and in terms of craft, it is pretty much flawless filmmaking. Welcome to Criterion, Mr. Anderson, and welcome to British shores.
Even as Anderson has gone on to create masterpiece after masterpiece (even with The Darjeeling Limited worth a second viewing), you could argue that he has yet to capture the perfection of Tenenbaums – well, maybe The Grand Budapest Hotel has given it solid competition, but still – Anderson’s humour, his style, his composition and narrative choices, all came at a time when cinema was arching into a new millennium and pretty much invented a sub-culture of cinematic aesthetic. Think of a Wes Anderson film and you will get very specific scenery in your mind. Often imitated (Sophia Coppola, Jared Hess, Richard Ayoade, Noah Baumbach) but never beaten, The Royal Tenenbaums established Wes Anderson as a gentle genius of the auteur select.
What makes Tenenbaums so enjoyable is that it plays with honesty in a very irreverent way. The central conceit of the film is it may or may not be a novel; are these people or are they characters or autobiographical manifestations? Each of the family have an ‘otherness’ which makes them endearing yet laughable. When Royal acts like a jackass, we at once feel the barbed notion of his selfishness but also see him in such a cartoonish light he almost seems pathetic. When a young Chas is shot, we sense the familiarity in our own childhood (a time when our father may have been overzealous), but reminisce on the sadness this act brings in what it represents to the character; all the while framed as comedy. Every single frame is art, and everything Anderson does is a conscious choice to build an environment of paper doll artistry. Even the moment when Richie tries to take his own life is a thing of beauty. Yet nothing is just decoration, as each emotional note hits and builds. Anderon fashions a nuanced story, and trusts in his actors to do justice to his creations.
From Alec Baldwin, faultlessly chosen as the film’s narrator, to Kumar Pallana’s Pagoda, there is not a single bit of bad casting in the entire movie. These are fully formed, living, breathing individuals who seem present from the opening scene. We feel their frustrations and feel frustrated at them as individuals. We sense their loss, their fears, their joys and the newness of budding love. Gene Hackman may be the largest personality on screen, but one could argue that Angelica Houston holds the entire thing together. Her Etheline is a she-lion who wants to protect her restless young against their wily father. There is a prickly exterior hiding her delicate internal yearning to see the family whole again. She is mother, father, lover and more, and Houston often brings that to the table in a single glance.
There is barely a blemish on display with The Royal Tenenbaums, and Criterion’s master gives the pastel coloured print added vibrancy. In fact, watching in this format is like discovering The Royal Tenenbaums all over again. Which, in a word, is exhilarating.
Film Grade: A+
Take your pick from a lovely array of supplements. There are Interviews, Behind-the-Scenes bits and bobs, a Scrapbook, Radio Segments and a dandy little Director’s Commentary from the man himself.
Special Features Grade: A-
The Royal Tenenbaums was the making of a great modern voice. Wes Anderson remains one of the most exciting talents in the industry today, with this beautiful masterpiece (and its gorgeous presentation here) holding that legacy together.