There are many works of fiction about people telling lies for so long that they start to believe them. These stories range from folks like Walter White putting on the costume of a villain only to realize that the role feels a bit too comfortable, to the cipher protagonist of Avatar, who spends so much time in his alien body that he decides he belongs with The Smurfs. Most of the time, these shifts are treated as triumphant awakenings or operatic betrayals. But few are as soft, simple, or sweet as when Royal Tenenbaum, in the film that bears his name, lives up to the lie he’s spun — that can be a better man.
When Royal (Gene Hackman) tells his pseudo ex-wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) that he’s dying and wants to reconnect with his family, it’s a canard. Not only is Royal as healthy as a man who drinks, smokes, and eats three cheeseburgers a day can be, but his conciliatory gestures were merely a front to (a.) worm his way back into the Tenenbaum family homestead after getting kicked out of the hotel where he’d been living for the last twenty years and (b.) ward off Etheline’s suitor, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover).
But the crux of the movie comes once Henry has unraveled Royal’s deceit and confronts him in front of the whole family, including Royal’s children: broken businessman Chas (Ben Stiller), gloomy scribe Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and washed up tennis pro Richie (Luke Wilson). Royal doesn’t bother denying the accusations, but in one last attempt to manipulate his loved ones, he turns to the family and says, “Look. I know I’m the bad guy on this one, but I just want to say that the last six days have been the best six days of, probably, my whole life.” A strange expression suddenly creeps onto his face, and The Narrator (Alec Baldwin) says, “Immediately after making this statement, Royal realized that it was true.”
Royal is not in the habit of saying honest things to his family members. And yet after less than a week of being a real presence in his children’s lives, of openly and earnestly talking to his estranged wife, of getting into mischief with his grandsons, Royal has unexpectedly bonded with them all in the midst of what was only supposed to be a ruse. He seems as surprised as anyone. It’s a persona Royal only assumed to get what he wanted, but he unwittingly discovers the man he could have been, and could still be, and spends the rest of the film trying to live up to that.
The Royal Tenenbaums is a movie about failure: a failed playwright, a failed athlete, a failed father, and a failed marriage. But it’s also about recovery, about moving past the stray marks, scrapes, and craters of the past and cobbling together, sometimes inadvertently, a way forward. Each of the Tenenbaums manages to capture some small part of this chance for renewal over the course of the film. And while, by the end of the movie Royal is still, as Henry puts it, “a son of a bitch,” he’s a better son of a bitch.
This story is given life by Wes Anderson’s skilled direction and gorgeous cinematography. The film features the vivid colors, dollhouse production design, and storybook imagery that have become Anderson’s trademark. He constructs The Royal Tenenbaums as an elaborate, ornate cuckoo clock, with every moment, scene, and shot coming together to make an intricate whole and the characters and other moving parts of his delicate world operating in perfect rhythm.
There’s nevertheless a stillness to how Anderson shoots the film. He spends so much of the movie holding the frame steady, showing off the beautiful cinematic dioramas he’s built, that in those off-kilter moments when the camera jostles–Chas’s fire drill, Royal’s frolic with his grandchildren, and Eli’s (Owen Wilson) kamikaze car–it’s disorienting in all the right ways. Those few scenes when the camera itself feels shaky convey the sense in which each of these moments disrupts the otherwise clockwork world the Tenenbaums have erected for themselves.
The Royal Tenenbaums is also a subtly hilarious film. The humor is dark, like in the wonderful scene where Royal tells Etheline that he’s dying, reducing her to tears, only for him to just as quickly admit it’s not true when he sees her distress. Etheline, naturally, responds by slapping him and asking what the hell is wrong with him. It’s hard to explain why this moment that, on the surface, is decidedly horrible, is also so funny.
Much of it comes from how Hackman and Huston expertly convey the shifts in their characters’ emotions–from being distraught, to being conflicted, and to being furious–so deftly. But part of it comes from the particular shade of dark humor Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson present in the film’s comic moments. It’s not the grim yet amusing black comedy in films like In Bruges or Fight Club, but instead it’s rooted in the quiet absurdity of the inappropriate responses and interactions between the characters in the film.
Royal tells his still-grieving grandsons, “I’m very sorry for your loss. Your mother was a terribly attractive woman.” Eli complains to Margot, “You never gave me the time of day ‘til I started getting good reviews,” and she responds with a deadpan, “Your reviews aren’t that good.” When Margot’s husband Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) reads a private detective’s report that details his wife’s various misdeeds, including countless infidelities, his one comment after learning all of her secrets is, “She smokes.”
The peak of this black comedy comes toward the end of the film, when Chas almost casually chats with his younger brother about his suicide note. Chas asks, “Is it dark?” to which Richie responds dryly, “Of course it’s dark, it’s a suicide note.” The film’s humor is just as dark, but it’s also very wry in the laughs it goes for. The style suits the high effort, yet low key tone of the film perfectly.
It’s difficult to place The Royal Tenenbaums in time, with certain elements that feel very modern and others that feel antique. Sometimes it seems like the movie’s production design was, as Eli says in the film, “written in a kind of obsolete vernacular.” But it adds to the sense that the Tenenbaums and their cohorts are stuck in another time, and underscores the idea that their surroundings are a reflection of that.
To the point, each Tenenbaum child tries to cope with their trauma by moving back into their childhood home. The setting of the film is distinctly New York City, but it is not the cutting edge, bustling metropolis that persists in the popular consciousness. Instead, The Royal Tenenbaums depicts a slice of Manhattan that feels as worn and faded as the Tenenbaums themselves. Yet when Anderson crafts these little moments within that setting, aided by perfectly deployed music from Paul Simon, Nico, The Rolling Stones, Vince Guaraldi, and Elliott Smith, they feel timeless as much as they feel like throwbacks.
It’s those moments where the facade falls down, where the various methods by which the Tenenbaum children have tried to cope with their disparate losses and shortcomings in life fall by the wayside, that the film is at its best and most poignant. When Richie, who has maintained the look of a tennis pro as a means of holding onto his past, trims his hair and finally removes the sunglasses he’s been wearing for the whole film, we finally see his eyes and the look of immense, quiet hurt he’s been carrying behind them.
When Margot, whose look and demeanor up to this point can be best summed up as “Flat Affect Barbie”, breaks down and cries after Richie tells her that his suicide attempt wasn’t her fault, it’s moving how her feelings for her adoptive brother, in the shadow of his desperate act, manage to cut through her steely visage.
After Royal saves Chas’s sons from an oncoming car, Chas sets aside the antipathy he’s rightfully harbored for his father over the course of film, and he confides in Royal that it has been “a rough year” after the loss of his wife. That moment, and the warm, knowing look Chas shares with his now legitimately ailing father in an ambulance, is some of the best work of Stiller’s career, and even Hackman’s. The Royal Tenenbaums is, in many ways, Anderson’s most emotional and affecting film, in a collection of works that do not lack for depth of feeling.
The Royal Tenenbaums explores broken relationships of many different stripes, be they familial, romantic, or between friends. But it also explores the ways, both deliberate and accidental, in which they can be mended. The stylized world Anderson sews together, full of title cards, picturesque scenes, and vibrant hues, draws out the inherent sweetness of his work, and accentuates the same bit of sweetness hidden beneath the surface of each of the wounded souls who populate his film. A film about failure, about failing to live up to expectations, may, oddly enough, be Wes Anderson’s greatest success.