Many people proclaimed director Wes Anderson a genius after 1998’s Rushmore. I, however, felt it premature to bestow such a title to a filmmaker with only two films to his name. Now, with The Royal Tenenbaums, I find myself enthusiastically joining the throng. At the risk of sounding like a latecomer to the party: Wes Anderson is fucking brilliant.
The Royal Tenenbaums packs a significantly more emotional punch than Anderson’s previous films, but retains the director’s darkly askew sense of humor. The story follows a family of geniuses, the Tenenbaums, who have devolved into the model of dysfunctionality. Abandoned by their heartless father, Royal (Gene Hackman), at an early age, the three Tenenbaum children – all former prodigies – now suffer from some serious complexes despite the best efforts of their over-indulgent mother, Ethel (Angelica Huston). Chas (Ben Stiller), a real estate mogul since his early teens, demands nothing less than excellence in his two young sons. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), an award-winning playwright by age nine, lives in a catatonic stupor caused by the constant reminder of her status as an adopted child. Richie (Luke Wilson), a former tennis champion, wanders forlornly around the world in search of happiness. Sadly, their childhood glory has faded; though still young, they’re washed up. When luck runs out on their long absent father, he devises a scheme to rejoin the family, resulting in an unexpected – and unwelcome – reunion for the Tenenbaums. And although Royal is somewhat surprised to find he has genuine feelings for his children, his blundering attempt at redemption only serves to underscore his innate selfishness.
Undoubtedly, the most striking aspect of The Royal Tenenbaums is its absolutely perfect styling. In a clever machination, director Anderson has assembled the film as a sort of cinematic novel, complete with chapters and a nifty book jacket. Taking place in a timeless, stylized New York City (instantly recognizable despite fanciful locations like the 375th Street YMCA, the Irving Island Ferry and 22nd Avenue), the movie has the look and feel of a 1970’s Kodachrome snapshot. Meticulous attention to detail is apparent in every scene. Still, an underlying naturalism keeps the film from becoming too precious. The drama here may be amusing, but it’s truthful, too, thanks to perfectly deadpan performances by the entire cast. Further confirming his prowess as an innovative auteur, Anderson has created a deliciously droll masterpiece, proving himself well deserving of his early critical esteem.