The Royal Tenenbaums made it into the Criterion Collection?!?!
Wes Anderson's quirky The Royal Tenenbaums is a study in fussy, geometrical postmodernism. Films like this - self-knowingly trendy and almost terminally ironic - can be cold. They can keep you at a distance. Yet just in those moments when we had had enough of the twee gimmicks (Alec Baldwin as narrator! archaic early 1980s fashions! yet another "colorful, extraneous detail"!) and being kept at arm's length, The Royal Tenenbaums finally turned around and delivered some good ol' fashioned sticky sweet, microwave-hot mush.
And we at the PPCC are very, very big fans of mush.
With all the mushy mushiness of a Lifetime Original Movie, The Royal Tenenbaums is about an estranged family's rapprochement. The eventual emotional reunion is just as sugary sweet as can be found in a more pop mainstream movie, despite the intentionally indie, stiff-upper-lip, "too cool to emote" aesthetic the film goes to great pains to maintain.
Gene Hackman as Royal Tenenbaum, the family's loose cannon patriarch.
But more about the Tenenbaums themselves: a "family of geniuses", they are two parents - the scattered, quasi-Dionysian good ol' boy Royal Tenenbaum (a wonderful Gene Hackman) and the driven, anchor-like Etheline (Anjelica Houston) - and three children. The eldest son, Chas (Ben Stiller, as an adult), seems to have inherited his mother's single-mindedness: he becomes a business tycoon in his tweens. "I used to be a homeowner myself," Papa Tenenbaum reminisces in one scene, "Until our son expropriated it from me." The middle daughter, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), has a hard, frosty exterior: constantly having been reminded of being adopted as a child, she lives inside a shell of privacy as an adult. For example, no one in the family knows she's been smoking for almost twenty years. The youngest son, Richie (Luke Wilson), is a sensitive artist-tennis star who harbors a life-long crush on his adopted elder sister. Rounding out the cast of characters are Etheline's newest suitor, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover, who is black in case you forgot... but don't worry, the film will be more than happy to remind you over and over again), the envious neighborhood childhood friend, Eli (Owen Wilson, brother of Luke), Margot's hyper-intellectual husband (an underused Bill Murray) and his trailing behavioral experiment (Stephen Lea Sheppard), and the family's Indian servant, Pagoda (Kumar Pallana).
One thing Wes Anderson has been criticized of, especially since Darjeeling Limited, is his latent racism. We haven't seen Darjeeling Limited, so we can't judge that film in particular. But there were a few cringe-worthy moments in The Royal Tenenbaums which reduced non-white characters to silly and unfunny stereotypes: Royal confronting Henry in "jive", or describing him as "big and black", or Pagoda's thick Apu accent and the fact that he trails Royal around like a loyal, um, well, servant! (And Pagoda's room: all decked out in Orientalist trinkets, complete with colonial era depictions of elephants on walls and gently-playing sitar music in the background.)
It all looks very "trendy" and is supposed to be funny in that usual twee, hyper-ironic "stuff that white people like" (tangentially, a website we, uh, don't like at all) way. "But hipsters are supposed to be sensitive and cultural!" you may say. Indeed, we don't think this film intentionally trivializes or caricatures Indians and blacks. It just seems to exploit stereotypes for some cheap laughs. It also seems to think that the non-white characters have no interesting independent stories to tell either - they appear only to exoticize the trimmings of the white people's center-stage angst.
Owen Wilson does his usual lovably dopey thing.
...while brother Luke Wilson does his usual sensitive guy thing. Meanwhile, Gwyneth Paltrow gets every woman's dream role as (drumroll) the object of the men's lusts, affections and angst. Good thing we're needed, eh, ladies! Gosh, otherwise we'd be non-entities.
That is the only big criticism we can levy against this film. As we said, the mushy mushiness was tastefully done - earning a few PPCC Tears of Emotional Manipulation, thanks to the cunning use of indie woe (Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, Van Morrison...). We've seen smarter takes on the same "family of alienated intellectuals living in a brownstone in New York City" plotline before (e.g. the magnificent The Squid and the Whale) and we've seen just as refreshingly pomo aesthetics before as well (e.g. the under-appreciated, and much less precious Breakfast on Pluto). So, for us, The Royal Tenenbaums was not as groundbreakingly brilliant or incisive as it thought it was and wanted to be. But it was a pretty okay roll nonetheless.