A father abandons his family. He lies, cheats and betrays them, spending most of the family fortune. When present, he’s cruel: blunt and caustic with his children, putting them down in painful moments and playing favourites, driving them apart from each other, introducing wounds that will not heal into their sibling relationships. It’s unclear if he does these things to upset them, or because he does not care when he hurts them. Once considered child geniuses, respectively excelling in finance, sport and the arts, the damage shows on these three children raised by a desperately loving mother; as adults they suffer through mental illness, financial ruin and devastating personal losses. Their father returns, out of money and desperate, claiming a need to reconnect with the family. They reject him, taking back some control from the man who almost destroyed each of them. So he pretends to have terminal cancer, devastating the family who were beginning to accept him back into their lives. This is a comedy.
Despite the tragedy that underpins The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson’s third feature is warm and charming, oftentimes even gleeful. Anderson’s idiosyncratic style is instantly recognisable, with its striking symmetry, pastel colours and smooth camera pushes and pans. Anderson manages and successfully utilises his incredible ensemble cast, ranging from acting stalwarts like Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover and Gene Hackman, to the more typically comedic Ben Stiller, Luke and Owen Wilson, and to whatever Gwyneth Paltrow is (Elfin Goop mogul?). That feat would be impressive, if it weren’t seemingly Anderson’s god-given talent. They each embody an individually iconic character, drawn together through two unifying forces: a deep need to connect with a family, in whatever form that may come; and a delightfully glib, monotone mode of speech. Many pinpoint its release in late 2001 as the birthplace of a particular brand of selfconsciously twee indies, of the Zach Braff-Garden State variety, and the gorgeous Tenenbaums certainly has precision and preciousness – but it’s all too easy to take this soft, ordered, comforting world at face value. Even the muted ’70s aesthetic is underpinned by heartbreak; dressing as they did as children, living in the house unchanged since the ’70s, they are desperately replicating the time in which they all peaked. Tweeness in The Royal Tenenbaums is not just about visual pleasure, but servicing the internal story of Anderson’s characters. For this reason, Tenenbaums is often imitated and rarely, if ever, successfully replicated. A far cry from the brand of ‘quirky’ comedies it inspired, Wes Anderson’s third feature actually served as an entirely new approach to family dramas.
Families are inherently messy businesses. A collection of biologically similar beings who mold, influence and endure each other should theoretically make a family, yet the damage these people have done to each other has forced each to retreat into a private safehouse: Chas a secure alarmed fortress, Richie an ocean liner, Margot a bathtub. The younger generation of Tenenbaums were destroyed as easily by their father as made geniuses by their mother, and it’s the juxtaposition of their sarcastic responses to difficult situations, and their often hilarious refusal to react to anything ‘appropriately’, that allows the real complexity of family life to be examined. These characters are completely incapable of connecting comfortably, despite having known each other almost all of their lives, and it’s the irony of this intimacy – the understanding that those we are most open with have the ability to hurt us most – that Anderson uncovers. The fact in itself that we recognise the need to endure the more trying characteristics of our own family members, and to ask them to endure our own, slaps with one hand and tickles with the other.
In truth, the characters themselves should be hateful. Liars, cheats, adulterers, addicts, violent and cruel relations – each have a streak that could make them repulsive in different hands. Co-written by Anderson and Owen Wilson, their script masters both edges of each sword: Royal’s brash enthusiasm and wildness is infectious, and counteracts his selfishness; Margot’s strength and frank mannerisms counteract her brooding cruelty; Richie’s heartfelt, fierce devotion lies under his quiet need to please and pander: there isn’t a character in Tenenbaums who doesn’t pair their flaws with their redemption. To truly master tragic comedy is to be able to express in writing how one does not exist without the other. The Anderson-Wilson writing duo embrace the subtext of a joke, the genuine hurt behind a sarcastic jab, and use these moments of personal truth to track how slow the process of healing really can be. Crucially, Tenenbaums isn’t just about that redemption, but about characters making just enough change themselves combined with their family finding just enough acceptance to make connections with each other again.
The characters in Tenenbaums learn to understand and deal with each others’ flaws as much as to fix their own; a resolution that leaves you feeling uplifted by a tragedy, even when Anderson resists the trappings of a ‘happy ending’ that fixes all the pain of each character’s life in one fell swoop. Royal’s final epitaph is a testament to that; the rest of the family allow him the legacy of saving them from the sinking ship of the Tenenbaum unit, even though he was the one who sank it in the first place. Some wounds don’t heal, and even accepted, the scars remain; people change in plateaus and dips, becoming harder to live with as quickly as they might become easier to live with. Anderson identifies the balance between comedy and tragedy inherent to the idea of a happy family unit and lays its intricacies bare in heartwrenching beats.
Considering Anderson’s predisposition towards vulnerability and painful disconnections, it’s almost laughable that his films are ever thought of as lighthearted. Each play out his balancing-act between comedy and tragedy, veering wildly between the two at any moment, and are often pinpricked with moments of death and distress: Moonrise Kingdom forges a love story out of the trauma of children who feel unwanted, and struggle to communicate without aggression (dogs don’t do too well out of this one either); The Darjeeling Limited includes the drowning of a small boy and concerns the process of grieving for a deceased father in disparate and conflicting ways; Steve Zissou, of the Life Aquatic, loses his son; in Rushmore Max’s puppy love briefly becomes an easily-resisted attempt to sexually assault his teacher; in The Grand Budapest Hotel, all the characters we grow to love have died at the hands of dictatorships or disease and the narrator is left alone, retelling their stories in the shell of the world they once shared. It seems, after all, that Wes Anderson isn’t in the business of making us laugh, but tenderly holding our hands through the most painful and gut-wrenching stories, and bucking us up as best he can.
Anderson uses his films to provide us moments in which to learn to grieve and heal, and The Royal Tenenbaums represents the pinnacle of that ability. Viewing a Wes Anderson film is to face the fact that we will be hurt by the ones we love, and we will hurt them too. It’s an acceptance that bad things will happen to us, and that there is no such thing as a satisfying and happy ending, while taking comfort in the knowledge that there will always be something to laugh about. That our struggles are small, silly and generally alright in the end. Living is painful business, and it’s Anderson’s magic trick that he frames everything so gently that an audience can process the tragedy as they feel able. Sit on the surface and enjoy how pretty everything is, or spend time in the deep, dark pools beneath; luckily, it’s Anderson’s job to make sure you don’t drown.
The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of The Royal Tenenbaums is available now. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and Emfoundation for providing a copy.