Wes Anderson doesn’t make deliberately quirky indie comedies or inscrutable art house films. He makes fantasies. “The Royal Tenenbaums” is just the story of a dysfunctional family, not an epic voyage to the bottom of the sea or the tale of an adventurous talking fox, and yet it feels as wonderfully strange and exotic as any of those.
That’s because just about every Wes Anderson film ever made is the most wholly Wes Anderson-y movie you’ve ever seen. His style drips over every moment in his framing, his tone and his quirky imagination. “The Royal Tenenbaums” more than any of Anderson’s films perhaps is like visual poetry in the way the film’s offbeat dialogue punctuates his quick cuts.
His shots are exploding with wild imagery. None of it is natural or has a purpose; it is merely beautiful to look at. One room has two giant murals on the wall featuring tigers and hunters, and another room reveals the head of a giant stuffed badger to be mounted on the wall.
What’s interesting then is how this lovely, colorful and surreal looking film is very literature minded. The story of the Tenenbaum family, as narrated by Alec Baldwin, begins with how a family of child prodigies, one a business genius, another an accomplished playwright and the last a star tennis player, become estranged from their father, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman).
The characters, as introduced to us in an upbeat montage to the tune of “Hey Jude,” are all eccentric figures that Anderson quickly turns into self-parodies of themselves in adulthood. Chas (Ben Stiller) has ended his business enterprises because he is now so neurotic and protective of his two children after the death of his wife. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) has not written a play in years. And Richie (Luke Wilson), in love with his adopted sister, suffered a nervous breakdown in a pivotal tennis match after being heartbroken to learn that Margot had married the psychologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray). All three are once again moving in with their mother Etheline (Angelica Huston) when they discover their father has a terminal illness.
Anderson breaks the story up into book chapters, guiding along this otherwise simple story with bizarre, art-house imagery, faux-intellectualism and dead-pan delivery. “The Royal Tenenbaums” teeters on the edge of sweetness and sorrow at all times.
Take Royal, who in a scene at a graveyard is so hilariously morbid. He leaves a bouquet of flowers at a grave, and then takes half of them back when he recalls he has a second grave to visit. He then idolizes one tombstone and bequeaths his own desire for what will be on his grave. The actors play these moments straight, but Anderson’s camera says otherwise. It’s disturbingly centered and peppers the soundtrack with indie covers of classic pop/rock songs. The mood he creates is a curious sensation that makes you laugh, cringe and weep.
Anderson craves the awkward tension in this family dynamic. “The Royal Tenenbaums” has a stellar cast of many varied personalities, but their chemistry is all slightly off. Some of the performances, like Huston’s, are the most grounded, and yet who knows what to make of Hackman’s oddball, alpha male performance. Anderson does wonders in tweaking his actors’ personas to create a bond between them that is strangely wonderful.
Many have heralded “The Royal Tenenbaums” as Wes Anderson’s best film. It’s offbeat and elegant in way that he has not been able to match since and has replaced with madcap quirk. It marks the evolution of a director who has become a master of his own style and a champion of his own fantastical voice.