Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Review: The Royal Tenenbaums

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) - Directed By Wes Anderson
Written 19/10/13.

I tried to review this the day I first saw it, a few months ago. I gave up. I had to stand down and admit to myself that I am not in any way a serious studier of film - I'm just a guy who writes about it now and then on his own website. I do not have the tools in my arsenal to accurately describe all of the minutiae of Wes Anderson's films. Well, I just got the DVD in the mail and I needed something to occupy my time with, so this is my simple and honest attempt to discuss with you a film for which I have incredibly confused feelings.
     As I mentioned in my review of Moonrise Kingdom, the most recent Wes Anderson film, his directorial style mainly employs the use of plinky plonky, whimsical music over well-crafted shots, with a few trademarks being symmetrical scene set-ups, whole-screen face close-ups and cut-aways to books or records within the universe of the film. The performances occupy a form of melodrama which converts everything into a dry, laconic style in which emotion and meaning is conveyed by small physical actions rather than facial expressions and/or vocal intonation. This is used to craft a story with a large number of call-backs, recurring elements and themes, as well as a bittersweet view of the world which doesn't quite fall into realism or cynicism but alternates between the two for the purposes of the plot.
     The film's characters are the Tenenbaums and their associates, a family of geniuses whose neglectful father figure Royal (Gene Hackman) leads into a lifestyle which will inevitably cause them to all break down after a 22 year plot jump to the beginning of the film. His children are financially-gifted Chas (an understated Ben Stiller) who is overprotective of his kids after the death of his wife the year before, former Tennis pro Richie (Luke Wilson) who garnered his father's attentions but has become a recluse since a public breakdown, and their adopted sister Margot (Gwenyth Paltrow) who lives a depressed, promiscuous existence and with whom Richie is madly in love with. There's also Eli Cash (Tom Wilson), Richie's childhood friend with whom Margot is having an affair. Royal, seeing his wife Etheline (Angelica Houston) is moving on with her life, attempts to bring his family back together by pretending to have stomach cancer and eventually is forced to move beyond his deceit and actually become a better person.
      Individual character development amongst the epic cast of characters is minimal on an individual basis, with each being forced to overcome their major neurosis by the film's end - the focus being on the family's collective improvement thanks to Royal's reckless actions. There are a few very strong scenes that stand out in people's memories of the film which I do have to cover, but they're pretty spoilery so if you've been reading up till now, go on and see the film. "waits." Okay, so one of the film's most famous scenes is one in which Richie, whose image in the film encompasses long hair and a large beard, responds to finding out about Margot's promiscuity by shaving all of his hair off and then cutting his arms open using his razor. The way this scene is shot, with Luke Wilson staring the viewer down as his image literally falls from his character and then professing his wish to die, is incredibly powerful.
Richie, Margot, Royal, Chas, Ethel, Henry and Pagoda.
       The problem being that it comes as a moment of melodrama in a pretty none melodramatic film. Margot as a character occupies a permanent malaise which has a variety of causes - her adoptive father's prejudice against her, her real father chopping her finger off by accident, being led into a marriage to an older man after finding no satisfaction in her youth. The film presents her promiscuity after her parents' breakup as an outlet for this malaise, an attempt to engage with the world. Richie's suicide attempt in response to learning about this past is displayed afterwards as a tragic thing which one or more other characters somehow blame on her. She then reveals her mutual love for him, and despite their icky issues they're implied to be closer and happier together afterwards. In a way, you could say that Richie is rewarded for showing the behaviours he shows in the film - behaviours which are obsessive, and creepy. He falls in love with his sister, spends his childhood painting portraits of her, fails in his chosen profession because she got married and has to go on a round-the-world voyage 10 years later because he's still obsessed with her.
      I think there's a very blurred line between dark humour and serious drama, and it's one that The Royal Tenenbaums tries to sit on for as long as possible. The suicide scene is a perfect example of how this both jarrs and sets the tone - the horror of seeing the blood roll down his arms then set against seeing him rushed through a hospital ward, face still covered in a thick layer of shaving cream. An earlier scene in which Royal's best friend stabs him and then helps him hobble over to a cab like an old buddy. And then the final scene, in which a funeral headstone makes up a funny lie about the cause of death. Direction technicalities aside, these little things that run throughout are what define The Royal Tenenbaums - they are what make it memorable, what make it lovable, and what set up this film as a classic piece of early Noughties cinema.


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