|Royal Tenenbaums, The (The Criterion Collection)|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 09 July 2002|
“The Royal Tenenbaums” is a curiosity. The film feels rather like a New Yorker cartoon brought to life, an impression enhanced but not solely created by the use of Eric Chase Anderson’s plaintive-looking artwork for punctuation throughout. Director Wes Anderson and his co-writer Owen Wilson have crafted their comedy/drama in a style that is distinct, erudite, quizzical and just a bit precious. “Tenenbaums” has the mood of a ‘60s/early ‘70s “counterculture” piece, like “Alice’s Restaurant” or maybe even “Harold and Maude” – all of the characters are so entrenched in their own peculiarities that it’s hard for them to deal with everyone else’s eccentricities.
Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is the absent patriarch of a New York family. Wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) is an archaeologist who, although her divorce from Royal has never been finalized, is entertaining thoughts of marrying her devoted accountant Henry (Danny Glover). The Tenenbaum offspring are financial genius and father of two Chas (Ben Stiller), who has been compulsively security-conscious since his wife died in an accident, ex-tennis champ Richie (Luke Wilson) and adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose early promise as a playwright has, like pretty much everything else about the family, collapsed under the weight of disappointment and botched interactions. Through a series of circumstances, all three younger Tenenbaums, plus childhood friend and current popular author Eli (co-writer Owen Wilson, Luke’s real-life brother), wind up back in the family townhouse. Royal, deciding it’s time to get his family back, fakes terminal illness so that he, too, will be allowed to come home.
As writers, Anderson and Wilson are always inventive and even surprising, although their style is something of an acquired taste. Unless one is on their wavelength, most of the characters come off as pitiable than actually likable – we’re watching everybody at a remove. The excellent cast, with Hackman first among equals, are all on the same quirky wavelength. Hackman puts a full measure of hurt and bewilderment into Royal’s reactions – his pain is even realer than his dangerous cavalier self-involvement.
The Criterion Collection release is a two-disc set, with the film and director Anderson’s measured commentary on Disc One and a horde of special features on Disc 2. The menus are illustrated with Eric Anderson’s drawings as a portrait gallery of cast and various scenes. The “scrapbook” button opens onto an entire submenu, with a few unlabeled goodies. These are occasionally pretty clever – click on an unlabeled “painting” in the upper left-hand corner of the “scrapbook” submenu, watch the outtake and then take another look at the painting. It’s funny (in a rather dark way) when you’ve deduced the subject matter. In the interview section, it’s informative to listen to actor’s actor Hackman hold forth on his craft (albeit rather briefly, as the interviews are each about three or four minutes long) and Owen Wilson’s expression of friendship for his director/co-writer Anderson is charming. The interviews are punctuated with behind-the-scenes footage. Among the many other goodies here are features on the artwork used in the film and a making-of segment. Sound on the most of the supplements – interviews, deleted scenes – tends to be center-channel only, although the menu music is dual-channel. The audio on the interviews dips on a few subjects – when Hackman and Glover lower their voices, they become almost inaudible at what is usually a good level for dialogue on my system, so it’s probably advisable to crank the sound up before checking them out.
Overall sound on “Tenenbaums” has its ups and downs. The dialogue in the center channel experiences a few noticeable level shifts on the DTS track, especially in Chapter 4, and the unseen narrator’s voice has a very slight hint of electronic crunchiness in one or two places. There are also what seem to be momentary audio drop-outs during the chapter-to-chapter segues. Mostly, though, the dialogue track is solid in the center channel and well-blended with the ambient effects. Chapter 7 has very realistic breaking glass and there’s a startling, likewise convincing car impact in Chapter 11. Anderson has chosen an eclectic and appealing soundtrack that includes a novel cover of “These Days” in Chapter 4 and the Beatles’ “Ruby Tuesday,” which starts off sweet and mellow in Chapter 9, only to blast at us in Chapter 10. This is deliberate – like the characters’ personalities, there’s no telling how the music will want to manifest itself next.
“The Royal Tenenbaums” will certainly endear itself to some viewers and is likely to at least intrigue those who can appreciate stories told at a five-degree tilt from reality. As someone might have said in the era when this type of filmmaking was more prevalent, it’s a trip.