35 The Royal Tenenbaums

tenenbaumsThis movie holds a special place in my memory. Way back when (2001 to be exact – dang!), my now best friend and I had just begun exploring our shared love for movies and would frequently hit up the theater downtown for a random weekend showing. One night we got there early and we popped into another theater and took seats in the back while waiting for our movie to start. It was at this point that we realized that no one was paying attention to who was entering which theater and that it would be so easy to sneak in a second movie on the first movie’s dime. So began our tradition of the “double feature.” We don’t live in the same city anymore, but when we visit each other we still do this, like we’re the cheapo college kids we once were. I don’t remember what movie we did see that night, but I do remember that the movie we caught the tail end of was The Royal Tenenbaums.

I had not actually watched the entirety of The Royal Tenenbaums until recently. The movie is the story of a broken family and their patriarch’s attempts to atone for some of his wrongs. When Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) learns that his estranged wife Etheline (Angelica Houston) is engaged to be married and wants an official divorce, he greatly embellishes an illness and lets his family believe that his death is imminent. As he moves himself back into the family home, his children are all in the process of dealing with their own failures. Each child was branded a genius and each are living in the shadow of their former promise. Chas (Ben Stiller), a math and business wiz from whom Royal stole money, is now on the verge of a nervous breakdown after losing his wife in a plane crash six months prior. Adopted daughter Margot (Gwenyth Paltrow), who received a playwriting grant in ninth grade, is in a stale and loveless marriage to neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray). Richie (Luke Wilson), a tennis prodigy, is off at sea after a public meltdown at a tennis match. Neighbor Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) rounds out the family. Having found success as an author, Eli is now dealing with his substance abuse problems and the fallout of his affair with Margot.

Wes Anderson is known for his quirkiness and attention to detail and that is fuly present here. If I were a film student I would, in particular, study the composition of his scenes and his use of color. Everything is so purposefully placed; nothing appears accidental. There are scenes where his characters are dressed in nudes and, consequently, the background stands out. In fact, there is one scene where everyone is dressed in a shade of brown that so perfectly matches the background that only Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), Etheline’s fiance, is the one to stand out in his navy suit and yellow pocket square. The rooms of the Tenenbaum house are all vibrantly painted, as if it is the house that is alive and not the people. And there’s something going on with pink here – Royal’s shirt is pink as are his pajamas, the trim on the hotel employees’ uniforms, Pagoda’s pants, and an entire room is the house. I’m not entirely sure what Anderson is trying to convey with color here, but it is a noticeable element in the story and I find it fascinating.

The pain that Royal has inflicted upon his family through his absence and negligence is most obvious in his relationship with Chas. Chas is the most openly resentful of his father, a feeling that is best captured in their exchange on why, many years ago during a BB gun fight, Royal shot him in the hand. When Chas asks why, Royal responds, “Wasn’t that the object of the game?” To which Chas replies, “No, we were on the same team.” And that’s really what this movie is about – sticking together as a family, having each other’s back, not shooting the others just because you can. It’s a lesson that Royal learns late in life, but one that he hopes his children will learn before they turn out like him.

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