The Royal Tenenbaums
by Joel Caris
You may be reading this on January 4th, but I'm writing it on January 1st. As such, Happy New Year! I managed to get very trashed on New Year's Eve and, frankly, I'm not going to be able to write anything significant today. Therefore, this week's Lo-Fi comes from my old blog, The Between. I wrote it back in March 2005. It's a review of The Royal Tenenbaums.
Yes, I realize that has basically nothing to do with music.
Also, there are spoilers, so if you haven't seen the movie for some reason and still plan to, you might want to leave now.
The Royal Tenenbaums, perhaps more than any other film, is what made me realize that trying to recommend movies to strangers is consistently a terrible, horrible, disastrous mistake. I tend to like very peculiar, odd, off-beat movies that other people are not always so inclined to like. I can certainly find people who share my taste in movies, but when a stranger comes into the store, let's say, and asks me what a good movie is, any recommendation I make will almost certainly be impressively inappropriate for that person. It would be as if a mother of three small children came in asking me what I would suggest she pick up to keep her kids busy for the night and I, thoughtfully stroking my chin, told her with complete confidence that Jenna Jameson's newest movie would be just right. Therefore, whenever a customer comes in asking for advice on what DVD to buy for a night of entertainment, I generally glare at them and stalk away, grumbling about Paul Thomas Anderson and Mark Wahlberg's prosthetic penis, or some other such nonsense.
There was a time, though, that I still attempted to make these suggestions. Once a fellow employee—though from a different department—came in with his girlfriend and asked for a suggestion on what movie to pick up. I thought a moment and said, with unshakable confidence, "The Royal Tenenbaums." I handed him a copy of it. He looked at the box dubiously, looked at me dubiously, and said—some might say a bit dubiously—"Really?"
"Oh, yeah," I said. "It's a great movie."
"Is it funny?"
"Hilarious," I assured him. "Trust me, you'll love it."
"Okay," he said, but he still looked less than certain. He purchased the DVD and went on his way, with me feeling satisfied that I had made a fine suggestion. After all, how could you not love The Royal Tenenbaums? The movie is wonderful, delicious, ridiculous and quirky, funny and heartbreaking and thoughtful, terribly insightful.
He came back the next evening, looked at me with the sort of expression that causes me to cover sensitive areas of my body and look for weapons with which to defend myself and said, "What the hell was that?"
"What? You didn't like it?" I asked with genuine confusion.
"No! You said it was funny."
"What are you talking about? It wasn't funny at all!"
I stopped and thought for a moment, running the movie through my head the best I could remember. I didn't agree with him that it wasn't funny, but suddenly I began to realize my mistake. Sure, it was funny to me, but it was a very peculiar and dry sort of funny—the kind of humor that you either love or hate. Also, it's quite melancholic and depressing, as well, and the characters are by no means bundles of joy. The film is filled with amusing quirkiness, absolutely, but the wrong person could easily find it unfunny, depressing, frustrating and very possibly pretentious. I thought, shit. Then I thought, and said, "Well, I guess there is that attempted suicide" and the look that he gave me suggested that there might soon be an attempted homicide.
I apologized. And I stopped recommending movies to people I didn't know. In fact, I've stopped recommending movies to many people I do know. Unless they've expressed love for some of the stranger and more weird films that I love, then I generally avoid trying to steer people toward the type of movies I like because, frankly, they probably won't appreciate them in the same way I do. The movies I truly love are usually not mainstream flicks that do big business—they're oddities that many people cherish, but that the vast, vast majority of the country would sigh dramatically about just before launching into a rant about the different ways in which they would kill the filmmaker if only they could get their hands on him.
I suspect The Royal Tenenbaums—and pretty much all of Wes Anderson's films—fall into this category. But damn if I don't love this movie. It is so wonderfully eccentric, filled with character and life, pain and misery and joy and bits of wonder mixed in it all for good measure. It's silly and funny, ridiculous at times, meandering and heartfelt and cruel and painful, but then heartening at the same time. I love that every one of these characters is hurting and yet still goes on to live their lives, to struggle through and try to make sense of their existence. I love the relationship between Luke Wilson's Ritchie and Gwyneth Paltrow's Margot, no matter how strange, inappropriate and lacking in boundaries it may be. I love the tent in the living room and the headband and sunglasses, the stealthy smoking, the utter ridiculousness that is on display every time Owen Wilson's character, Eli, comes on screen. I love—God, how I love—the attempted suicide. It is so shocking and sudden, so harsh and brutal, coming out of nowhere and just crawling under my skin, digging right into my gut and seizing me, refusing to let go. I love how it is preceded with the shaving and the look of pure desperation in his eyes as he rids himself of hair. It is one of the most haunting scenes I have ever seen in film and it affects me, greatly, every time I see it. I still think about it any time I hear "Needle in the Hay" by Elliott Smith.
The movie is inspired by Salinger's writing, without a doubt, and specifically by the Glass family. I love that. This surely must be the closest Salinger's writing has ever come to being captured on screen. Hell, I'm not sure if there are even other attempts, but I can't imagine that any that do exist would do as good a job as The Royal Tenenbaums does. Like in a Salinger story, these characters are too smart for their own good, over-thinking everything, often to the point of inaction. I do that all the damn time, so I love seeing it up on screen. I love the complete dysfunction and the bizarre family dynamics. I love how all of these people are essentially good people who can't help but screw up their lives and the lives of those around them.
The performances are wonderful, every one of them. Owen Wilson is ridiculous, Luke Wilson is fascinating and heartbreaking. Gwyneth Paltrow is beautiful and overwhelmingly depressing. Gene Hackman is silly and his character can be absolutely terrible, yet you can't help but care for him and wish him the best. Bill Murray makes great use of his small role, as does Danny Glover, and Anjelica Huston floats gracefully through the movie, a calming force.
The writing is beautiful. Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson are one of the best writing teams working and The Royal Tenenbaums is their most accomplished work (though Rushmore is funnier.)
This is easily one of my all-time favorite movies. Every frame of it is pure quality. It's dark and incredibly haunting, yet has so many moments of great, dry humor and plenty of other silly and ridiculous scenes. Pagoda sticking a shiv in Royal's belly, Eli being chased down by Chas after crashing into the house, Eli slipping out the window during his intervention, the stacks of porn and the ridiculous television interview with Eli, Dudley pointing out the flaws of a Gypsy Cab—all of these are wonderful, funny moments. I adore them.
Yet, it's the movie's sorrow that most gets to me. It's the attempted suicide, the way Ritchie shaves off his beard and most of his hair, his eyes showing him to be lost and desolate. It's the entire relationship between Ritchie and Margot. It's Margot saying, "I think we're just gonna to have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that, Ritchie." All of these moments wear me down, leave me scraped and raw.
I was wrong, I was. The Royal Tenenbaums is a funny movie, but it's not a comedy. It is a heartbreak that ends on bittersweet hope and it's a film that I absolutely love.
Needle In The Hay - Elliott Smith (MP3)
Joel is neither royal nor a Tenenbaum