The Royal Tenenbaums has always been, and still remains, Wes Anderson’s masterpiece. The domestic drama of one dysfunctional family is eccentric yet curiously mundane, but always humorously and irrevocably wonderful. Anderson may be considered among the Marmite directors and the stylised aesthetic may grate on some viewers. But drenched in this post-modern detachment and full of humour of varying maturity levels, The Royal Tenenbaums is Anderson at his peak; witty, charming and when all is said and done, incredibly heartfelt.
The film follows the Tenenbaum family, its three genius children, self -confessed ‘arse-hole’ father and quiet mother, from a childhood of success into adulthood where the weight of this hangs very heavy on their lives. It is not dissimilar to Salinger’s Glass family who were famous whiz kids on a radio show on whom the pressure of early stardom leads to suicide and depression. Indeed the influence of Salinger is etched in every syllable of the dry and deadpan dialogue. The children become depressive adults and all move back into the comfort of their family home as their ‘dying’ father attempts to reconnect with them all.
It is a huge ensemble piece and every actor is invaluable in their role. Gene Hackman’s Royal is central to the story and somehow manages to be sympathetic, despite faking cancer and shooting his own son with a bb gun. The story is about him trying to find redemption, and despite his many wrongdoings, you do eventually see the best in him. It is also interesting to see a new side of the likes of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, as Anderson’s brand of humour is worlds away from the juvenile comedy they have been unfortunately associated with.
It’s an homage to Salinger’s angst and detachment with divorce, suicide, drug addictions and a dead dog. But, in the same way that Royal Tenebaum is a softy at heart, we only need to dig a little way into the film to find its sentimental side. The dry humour and seemingly cold demeanour is not a lack of emotion, but it simply finds a different way of expressing it. The distancing from events becomes the only way to deal with what unfolds. Chaz (Stiller) spends most of the film in a state of highly strung neurosis, sending his two boys to the gym 16 times and week and has them crunching numbers for his business. Yet the moment he is laid bare, and admits to his father ‘it’s been a rough year’, is poignant and honest. This is hugely characteristic of the film, and although it is covered by a thin veil of humour there is no lack of emotional content. The film is perfectly balanced between the stylised aesthetic and dry humour but in the face of actual and tangible emotional situations.
It probably shouldn’t work, and certainly not everyone will find scenes of a blood covered suicide victim funny. Yet somehow it does, and the blend of dry humour and existential crisis works perfectly to create something truly magnificent.