FAMILY ISN’T A WORD… IT’S A SENTENCE.
At the time of its release, famed film critic Leonard Maltin was one of several to point out the fact that Wes Anderson’s new film has no story. He’s right about that, it’s very difficult to tell someone what this movie is about. What it does have however is emotions, themes, extraordinary details, a star-studded cast and a soundtrack full of great songs. So what if there’s no story to hold it together? Don’t be greedy.
What this film essentially does is introduce us to a family and one man’s arguably disingenuous attempt to make good with that family again. They are the Tenenbaums, they live in Manhattan and every one of its members has had quite an interesting career. Royal (Gene Hackman) was a litigator before he was arrested and thrown in jail. He abandoned his family and led an adventurous life. His wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), became an archaeologist and writer. Their children are something special. They have two sons, Chas (Ben Stiller), who became a financial whiz kid, and Richie (Luke Wilson), who embarked on a successful career as a tennis player until he abruptly quit at the age of 26. Royal and Ethel also adopted a girl, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), an anemic, depressed child who wrote an admired school play.
The Tenenbaums became famous but paid a hefty price; when we meet the children as adults we learn that Richie is suicidal, Margot is in a loveless marriage and Chas is a widower who’s terribly afraid something will happen to his twin sons. That’s the situation Royal faces when he decides one day to come back to the family he deserted. He knows there will be no red carpet, but he hopes to generate some sympathy by letting his family believe he’s only got a few weeks left to live. He certainly needs their money… but perhaps he needs their love as well?
It’s easy to get the impression that this is merely a comedy, but Anderson and his co-writer Owen Wilson have not shied away from the dark. The director’s laidback filmmaking style threatens to completely mute those parts of the story, but they come through. This is a discreetly emotional, highly original film about overcoming depression.
Perhaps the most interesting and moving character is Chas; ever since his wife died in a plane crash he’s been busy trying to shield his kids from the real world, almost destroying their independence in the process. This is something Royal realizes as soon as he sees them again, but Chas won’t listen to him. He’s too busy being furious with him and everyone else. The writers refuse to turn him into a caricature, which is not easy when everybody kind of look like comic book characters; they always wear the same outfits.
The charm is in the cast and the details; Hackman is simply wonderful and there seems to be such hard work behind every scene. As a viewer you are supposed to pay attention to the actor at the center of a particular scene, but Anderson would hate it if you didn’t also notice the brightly colored wallpaper behind the actor or the bizarre painting hanging on the other wall. So what if there’s no story? Wouldn’t that be overkill?
The Royal Tenenbaums 2001-U.S. 108 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Wes Anderson, Barry Mendel, Scott Rudin. Directed by Wes Anderson. Screenplay: Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson. Cast: Gene Hackman (Royal Tenenbaum), Anjelica Huston (Etheline Tenenbaum), Gwyneth Paltrow (Margot Tenenbaum), Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson… Bill Murray, Danny Glover. Narrated by Alec Baldwin.
Golden Globe: Best Actor (Hackman).
Last word: “[Gene Hackman’s] been doing movies for a long time, and he didn’t want to work sixty days on a movie. I don’t know the last time he had done a movie where he had to be there for the whole movie and the money was not good. There was no money. There were too many movie stars, and there was no way to pay. You can’t pay a million dollars to each actor if you’ve got nine movie stars or whatever it is — that’s half the budget of the movie. I mean, nobody’s going to fund it anymore, so that means it’s scale.” (Anderson, Vulture)