Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums now joins a list—alongside 12 Angry Men, Shattered Glass, and Major League—of movies that, should I come across them while channel surfing, I must drop everything else to watch. Just ask my lovely wife. Why, just last week she sat down beside me and gently inquired, “this must be the third time this week—do you really need to watch the last twenty minutes of The Royal Tenenbaums again?”
Yes, dear. Yes, I do.
I have been a fan of Wes Anderson’s work since Bottle Rocket. I know that some film fans have far less patience than I do with his unique shot compositions; persnickety, overstuffed production design; and obsession with the problems of well-to-do white folks. Anderson tends to favor medium shots with busy, multi-layered backgrounds—like a child’s pop-up book. The medium shot is handy in that it allows actors to show a range of emotion. I’m still parsing out Anderson’s obsession with backgrounds that stress the finite and occluding; does it speak to his need for control? Is it to showcase the theatricality of his characters by resembling the backdrop a stage play, or to draw attention to their specialness by evoking a museum shadowbox display? Maybe, like Tenenbaums itself, which takes the form of a book being read aloud, the classic “Anderson shot” is meant to represent the limited, myopic point of view of a single author.
Director/co-writer Wes Anderson is a master of soundtrack music. Like Martin Scorsese before him, Anderson’s use of popular music makes his films so much fun. Even when he strays from the Billboard charts, the results are interesting. I’m thinking here specifically of the David Bowie hits sung in Portuguese that make up a majority of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’s soundtrack and the whimsical-yet-somehow-terrifying use of Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” in Moonrise Kingdom.
Particular favorites in Tenenbaums include: Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard” underscoring Royal and his grandsons mixing it up; Nico’s “These Days,” which virtually defines the word “ennui” accompanying Margot’s reunion with Ritchie at the bus station; and Van’s Morrison’s effervescent “Everyone” playing as the cast file past a beloved family member’s grave.
When Royal reasserts himself as father and leader of the clan, it awakens the anger his children feel because he abandoned them; it takes them awhile to realize that what they’re really angry about is not the fact that he left—it’s that they missed his presence in their lives. This reminds me of calling my mother on the phone once I had become an adult and moved out of her house.
“I’m upset with you, Johnny—you never call!”
“But Mom,” I would protest, “I’m calling you now.”
“Well, you are still a disappointment,” was always her response.
Just kidding! She never said that… to my face.
Through most of its running time, The Royal Tenenbaums reminds us that we cannot let grudges, self-pity, spite, or a misplaced need to punish others block us from recognizing how great it can be to finally get what we were so angry about not getting earlier.
The Royal Tenenbaums mines a deep well of emotion involving family. When I hear of friends that are estranged from their families, I can’t help but think of how short life really is. Though I don’t think my father and I ever saw eye-to-eye on a single issue, not a week goes by that I don’t wish I could share just one more Thanksgiving with him. This past April marked the 28th anniversary of his death—meaning that I have now celebrated more Thanksgivings without him than I got to share with him. This is a sad, sobering milestone.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.