It’s still early in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Most of the film to this point has been a series of static shots, exquisitely composed to resemble live-action scenes from a decades-old children’s book, supplemented by the omniscient narration of Alec Baldwin. Anderson blows through exposition with an efficiency rarely seen, cramming dozens of almost invisible but telling details into each frame, laying the foundation for his story as an author of a successful fiction series might drop important backstory into the early chapter of his latest novel. The pace is brisk, but it develops a rhythm, a propulsion of sorts.
Until Margot steps off the Green Line bus.
In a moment of striking beauty, the film slows down as Anderson fills the frame with alternating shots of Richie (a shaggy, bearded Luke Wilson) and his adopted sister Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) as she crosses a parking lot to greet him. The opening notes of Nico’s “These Days” set the tone–gentle yet bittersweet. The wind rustles her hair ever so slightly and then we see his eyes through the giant sunglasses he’s been hiding behind for years: He loves her.
There are few moments in the movies that hit me as hard as this one does. There’s the Aimee Mann sing-along in Magnolia, the finale of Star 80, and this. It’s a perfect marriage of sight, sound, and character revelation.
The song itself is a key to the film. Though the scene in question plays only the first verse, a listen to the full composition reveals the lyric Please don’t confront me with my failures. I had not forgotten them.. This is a film about failure and its resulting losses–lost potential, lost confidence, lost family.
As children, the Tenenbaums were prodigies, so famous that their mother Ethel (Angelica Huston) wrote a book about them. Chas was a financial wizard. Margot was an award-winning playwright. Richie was a tennis champion. But their parents separated–due almost entirely to the awful behavior of their father, Royal (Gene Hackman)–and their lives began to fall apart.
Chas (Ben Stiller) lost his wife in a plane crash, and the resulting anxieties of being a single father (without any such positive role model) are driving him to madness. He and his sons wear bright red Adidas track suits so they can find each other easily in an emergency.
Margot is trapped in a loveless marriage to Raleigh, a downbeat older professor (Bill Murray), and she hasn’t written a play in ages.
Richie suffered a major public meltdown during a match (shortly after his sister’s wedding), effectively ending his professional tennis career.
In short order, they find themselves living back with their mother, a family once again.
Royal has been on the outside for twenty years, living at a luxury hotel, estranged from his children. Now, though, he’s run out of money. Worse still, Ethel wants to get re-married (to Danny Glover) and wants a divorce. With the help of his loyal assistant Punjab, Royal fakes a terminal illness and moves back in. After decades apart, the Tenenbaums are a family again. They have a chance to grow up, finally.
The film’s tagline was “Family isn’t a word. It’s a sentence.” Anderson and his co-writer Owen Wilson (who plays wanna-be Tenenbaum Eli Cash) explore a variety of ways we find ourselves bound to one another. Whether by blood, adoption, or choice, we are uncomfortably connected and have to deal with it.
Matt Damon once noted that people stop maturing at the age when they become famous. The Tenebaum kids are stuck in a prolonged pre-adolescence, coasting on the fumes of their early success, emotionally stunted. The struggles they face over the course of the film are exactly what young teenagers would experience.
Chas has to deal with his anger towards Royal and learn to give up the illusion of control that cannot protect his children. Margot and Richie have a secret, tender make-out session. She secretly smokes. He attempts suicide. These are dark and uncertain times for them. They are lost and looking for something to cling to.
So is Royal. Just as he is about to lose everything, he realizes what that means and begins, slowly and awkwardly, to make amends. Unfortunately, his lies about terminal cancer are uncovered by Ethel’s fiancé, and he finds himself on the outside again. The crisis of Richie’s near-suicide forces him to recalibrate his efforts, to finally be the father the kids have needed since they were little.
By finally committing himself fully to his role as father, Royal finds a fragile peace with his family. The wrongs of the past are not erased or papered over, but they gain context. He becomes more than his failures by accepting them.
Not all of us get the second chance that the Tenenbaums get. (This is, after all, a movie designed to replicate children ‘s literature from a bygone era.) The trick, in the movie’s telling, is to focus on the present. Forget past successes and defeats. Embrace the potential of this moment. This is not a cure-all–Royal is still, in the estimation of Ethel’s new husband “kind of a son-of-a-bitch”–but it is definitely an improvement.