There are few things loved more by the masses than an embarrassment. Specifically, we love to see the mighty fall. If they rise again, fine—as long as the fall was spectacular and painful.
Our culture of Schadenfreude is almost as deeply ingrained as our culture of saturated fat consumption. It’s the reason for everything from tabloid newspapers to professional wrestling. We find few phrases sweeter than “I told you so.”
A considerably less populist side of this culture is shown to us in The Royal Tenenbaums, writer-director Wes Anderson’s wise, melancholy third feature following Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. Eccentric and eloquent, this tale of a family of child geniuses grown up to become muddled adults backhandedly revels in the disappointments almost certain to come to those who were once most likely to succeed.
A typical film’s story line exists on the upward sweep of life, ending at the happy, sunset-soaked apex of potential and reality. The Royal Tenenbaums deals with the booby traps waiting on top of that peak for anybody foolish enough to try to stand there too long, and what happens after the invisible but inevitable slide.
Gene Hackman is Royal Tenenbaum, the scoundrel father of three grown children: Chas (Ben Stiller), who was a Wall Street whiz as a kid; Richie (Luke Wilson), a disgraced tennis star; and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), an adopted former playwright. After setting the world on fire as kids, all utterly failed under the burden of boundless expectations.
They’ve gathered one weekend in the family’s New York home, where Royal undertakes his latest shamelessly manipulative plan to steal his children’s love: he tells his ex-wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) that he’s got cancer, even though he actually doesn’t. Royal’s plan subsequently sparks a reckoning that spreads through the sprawling family with unpredictable tenderness.
Though no less quirky and deliberately off-kilter, it’s not as insistently clever as Rushmore, an over-praised yarn that was more entertaining in its details than its overall concept. The Tenenbaums are more human and vulnerable than Rushmore’s caricatured denizens. Each family member carries a suppressed spark that makes his or her failure even more poignant.
The film recalls John Irving in its meandering familial tenor. In fact, it feels much more like a breakout novel than a feature film with an all-star cast of actors obviously determined to work with a hot young director. The story is told in chapters, with Alec Baldwin providing an austere voiceover. All this formality lends as much distinct character to the film as Anderson’s spartan direction, which produces one compelling, real-time scene after another.
From this evocative cast of characters, Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson (who, as an actor, teamed with Hackman in the laughable-in-a-bad-way Behind Enemy Lines) spin an entertaining story of their characters’ impossible quest for redemption. They do it with a minimum of showy dialogue, often preferring to let a catchy pop song or a mournful stare do what their words won’t.
Like a dark-side Wilford Brimley, Hackman puts his trademark folksy menace to its best use since Unforgiven. Royal seems to regret failing as a father and a husband, but that doesn’t stop him from recruiting Chas’ sons for an afternoon of shoplifting and jaywalking. Failure, in the end, is the family’s common bond, but they may not weather each other’s scrutiny of those failures.
The Royal Tenenbaums has fewer laughs than Anderson’s first two films, but it has far more resonance. Essentially, it’s a love letter to losers who weren’t born that way, and its greatest achievement is capturing the profound helplessness felt by those saddled with great expectations. The Tenenbaums reached their primes before they could enjoy it; instead, we sympathize with their fall, even as we enjoy it.
The Royal Tenenbaums (R) HHH1/2 Directed by Wes Anderson. Starring Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow.