Little guys with big goals is familiar territory for writer-director Wes Anderson and longtime writing collaborator Owen Wilson. Their first feature, “Bottle Rocket,” trails rural Texans with Bonnie-and-Clyde dreams. “Rushmore,” the duo’s acclaimed follow-up, peers into the hyperkinetic mind of prep-schooler Max Fischer as he plots to build a multimillion dollar aquarium while wooing a faculty member who’s years out of his league.
But with “Royal Tenenbaums,” Anderson and Wilson bring in the big guns.
Their characters here are iconic and accomplished. The diverse cast is the greatest ensemble this side of Christopher Guest. And with support from media empire Disney — including a few million dollars more than he’s used to — and a stellar soundtrack spanning decades and genres, Anderson and Wilson may soon become big guns themselves.
“Royal Tenenbaums” steps beyond the tried and true. Anderson retains the emotionality of “Rushmore” but widens it to encompass a number of perfectly textured familial relationships. He gently strides from drama to comedy, never allowing one to upstage or undercut the other. Combined with a tremendous attention to detail and monumental casting, “Tenenbaums” shows us just what a long way Anderson and Wilson have come.
Instead of adapting a film from a novel, the two imagine their characters all to have written novels themselves, and the film is the adaptation of one of these fabricated works. A narrator guides us through “chapters” and into a fairy-tale vision of New York, or as Anderson called it in a Nov. 17 interview, “It is much more of a dream idea.”
The characters’ idiosyncrasies and exploits — such as Margot’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) missing finger and her drugged-out Jamaican love affair — seem straight from the pages of cosmopolitan literature, or at least magazines. Familiar yellow cabs are replaced with scuttling “Gypsy” cabs and their zany drivers. In “Tenenbaums,” it’s all about details.
The center of the action is the towered Tenenbaum home, where a family finds itself suddenly reunited when patriarch Royal (Gene Hackman) announces that he is dying. Royal’s three children, all prodigies who faltered as they matured, uneasily approach their father and their family after years of separation. As brutish Royal zanily schemes to regain his family’s affection, the Tenenbaums alternately destroy and build new relationships while searching for that ephemeral bond of family.
The first thing you notice about “Tenenbaums,” in contrast to previous Anderson-Wilson films, is the A-list roster: Gwyneth Paltrow, Gene Hackman, Angelica Huston, Danny Glover, Ben Stiller. Familiar faces Bill Murray and Luke and Owen Wilson also feature prominently. Not only does each member of the cast churn out a great individual performance, but they also work surprisingly well together, speaking years of meaning and history into each bit of dialogue.
When Royal first confronts ex-wife Etheline (Huston) with his imminent death, we understand the dynamic of their relationship, the clash of two magnetic personalities: Etheline is controlling, yet forgiving and understanding; Royal is bold, powerful and just a bit daft.
A series of similar reunions slowly introduce pieces of characters’ personalities. They are by no means obvious or one-dimensional; rather, Anderson reveals them by layers, allowing their peculiarities to dictate moments of tense drama and bellyaching comedy. Royal, for example, initially appears brusque and selfish, but he also seems genuinely awed by his own mortality and the idea that he might lose his family because of his own stupidity.
The three children, Chas (Stiller), Margot and Richie (Luke Wilson), are introduced not only through interaction with other characters but also through rapid-fire family histories built around mock autobiographies. Thankfully, none of them pulls the Blanche Dubois routine of self-pity and nostalgia, making us like them all the more.
Richie is a tennis champion until he has a nervous breakdown: he rips off his shoes and one sock on the tennis court, cries, curses and lobs each serve way out of the court. Chas was a financial wizard who bred Dalmatian mice before losing his wife to a fire, prompting him to become an overprotective, neurotic safety Nazi to his sweat-suited, bushy-haired children.
Margot is the most gossip-worthy of the three children, a promising playwright with severely bobbed blond hair, a dour face, and dark, circled eyes. After years of being introduced as the adopted child, Margot naturally feels alienated from the Tenenbaums, running away to have a variety of scandalous sexual romps. She shags a punk rocker in a bus, with the Ramones blaring on the soundtrack, before moving on to a thin Parisian girl, and finally, to quietly discontented Dr. Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray).
Stiller and Murray are consistently hilarious, and both have previously displayed dramatic chops (Stiller in the vastly underrated “Permanent Midnight” and Murray in “Rushmore”) that are well utilized here. Glover plays against type — his accountant is meek, bumbling, and, according to Glover, made up to look like Kofi Annan at the request of Anderson.
But Luke Wilson and Paltrow deserve special mention. Paltrow, who tried to break into the comedy circuit with “Shallow Hal,” succeeds in evoking many a laugh while maintaining the most melancholy straight man’s face since Buster Keaton. Luke Wilson, on the other hand, exercises his dramatic skill during Richie’s silent, tense emotional breakdown, wonderfully scored to Elliot Smith’s brooding and violent “Needle in the Hay.”
The diverse supporters, notably Kumar Pallana and Owen Wilson, are every bit as bizarre as the Tenenbaums. Pallana plays Royal’s Indian hit man sidekick, Pagoda, hilariously underscoring Hackman by going through the same motions as Royal but with an aged wit and a sort of pathetic loyalty. Owen Wilson has done everything from quirky (“Bottle Rocket”) to action (“Behind Enemy Lines”) to drama (“Permanent Midnight”). But his character, Eli Cash, challenges the comic veterans for number of laughs as he writes pseudo-intellectual novels (critics call him the James Joyce of the West), snorts cocaine, and does his darndest to become one of the crazy, brainy Tenenbaums.
Hackman and Huston are each more than expressive in roles that were written specifically for them. Royal is the film’s centerpiece, but he matches his family members in eccentricity. As Anderson commented, “Usually in an ensemble piece, the central character is a straight man. — In this case, however, he isn’t the straight man. He’s a wild character, a catalyst, a kind of primal force.”
Hackman said that despite his qualms about having a role written for him, he was eager to portray Royal after reading the script.
“I don’t like things written for me — or rather I don’t like having to be restricted to somebody’s idea of who I am,” he said.
Anderson, who hand-picked his actors, conducts them in a complex emotional symphony, echoing their performances with an intricate narrative. The film is structured like a novel, not only in its fairy-tale setting and chapter divisions, but also in its Joycean snapshots of the past, which arise with split-second sensory cues. Margot, for example, stares down at her missing finger, prompting Anderson to begin a whirlwind of a flashback that cuts quickly from moment to moment, year to year. The device quickly familiarizes us with the characters without revealing too much. While this technique does make the film more hip and trendy, Anderson carefully balances the stylized and the realistic; each tone is suited for various parts of the film.
Not only does Anderson make great use of his cast, but he also makes the most of a fabulous set. His attention to detail pays off. As Owen Wilson said, “We had a lot more time and money, and Wes has always been big on detail. So instead of just payi
ng attention to the set, or the costume, Wes could focus on the painting or the glasses.”
And as we’ve come to expect of Anderson (remember “Rushmore’s” late-night kiss set to John Lennon’s “Oh Yoko” and the prank war between Murray and Jason Schwartzman set to the Who), the soundtrack and the score harmonize perfectly with the film’s emotional yet funny pitch. The score, by “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore” vet and former Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, is sweet and powerful, and Anderson of course refrains from using music to cue emotion.
“The Royal Tenenbaums” is deeper than Anderson and Wilson’s two previous feature films. It is deeper emotionally, weaving the saddest of moments with the funniest. The jokes are so quick that the audience can barely recover from one before it’s hit with the next. It is also deeper in terms of narrative structure, human interaction, and that key attention to detail.
But mostly it’s the maturity of the film that makes it stand out. Anderson and Wilson understand and capture the strangest of relationships — family ties — between larger than life characters (portrayed by larger than life actors at that). They’ve graduated from making movies about little guys to creating huge characters, letting them collide and building an ingenious script around their powerful personas. And here’s the best part: the Tenenbaums may be insane, they may be bigger than Max Fischer and Dignan, but they are still painfully and beautifully human.