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The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson) 2001

The first shot of Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums is inexplicably one of a library book being checked out with the movie's title on it. The device here, that the film is an adaptation of some never-written novel, is clever, but doesn't add much to the proceedings. A number of things in the film, unfortunately, follow suit. The film's first twenty or so minutes zip by at a Moulin Rogue-like pace, with hardly a scene with more than three lines of dialogue. The array of images is hugely disorienting, but at the same time filled with many laughs. The establishing scheme is the same as was used in Anderson's Rushmore: give the audience plenty of short scenes to start with, then gradually lengthen them and increase their dramatic importance as the audience's trust is gained. The film never rises to the level of his previous work, however. At the end of the movie, an ensemble comedy, there are about half a dozen catharses in a two-minute span of time, but none of them approach the subtle resonance of Rushmore's ending.

The film isn't trying to ape Rushmore's content, though, even if it ape's that film's style. The comedy here comes faster and cheaper, and it's spread over far more characters. The previous film's heartbreak and resignation are replaced with zaniness and abundance. The film isn't necessarily a failure, but it's definitely comprised of a lower form of comedy than its predecessor. I think the film's more ambitious scope explodes a bit under Anderson's reign. He can't find the heart of some of these characters, even as he continues to introduce more. The shift from an internalized comedy to an externalized one doesn't quite work all of the time. Still, a lot of what is tried succeeds in the film. Certainly, the film's great achievement is Gene Hackman's performance. His Royal Tenenbaum is stripped of the self-awareness to allow him to communicate consistently on any normal human level, and yet manages to endear. Also great in the superb ensemble are Gwenyth Paltrow as the secretive adopted Tenenbaum, Margot (Anderson wonderfully conveys her sense of not belonging by always framing her on the edge of the frame apart from the other family members), and the consistent Wilson brothers, who both have showy roles that are not squandered. The film's look is also exceptional. The costuming and set design belie the film's modern day setting, giving the impression that the city stopped evolving when the family broke down 22 years earlier. Most importantly, the script delivers plenty of laughs. The characters never feel cheapened, even as they are put in some less than flattering situations. The title of the film recalls Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, which was edited by the studio into less of a masterpiece than it might have otherwise been... Wes Anderson seems to have cut the studio part out of that equation and turned out a film that's too lean and tightly controlled for its own good. The characters are wonderful and Anderson obviously loves them, but they never get a chance to breathe. My biggest wish is that he was willing to slow down and devote more time to the colorful cast. The Tenenbaums deserve better than the whirlwind approach.

***

October, 2001

Jeremy Heilman