Reputations are a slippery thing, and directors sometimes start their career with one that completely contradicts the one they get later. The French critics who would come to damn Spielberg as the McDonalds of cinema had previously swooned over the existential spareness of Duel. Likewise, after works like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and True Grit it’s hard to believe that the Coen brothers were ever seen as difficult, elitist film snobs who would never make a true crowd-pleaser. But they were, and so was Wes Anderson. As a long-time fan of his work, I think it’s worth pointing out that all the qualities that would lead to H&M deciding he was a good fit for their heartwarming Christmas advert were present in the earlier, allegedly arch and unemotional, films – none more so than The Royal Tenenbaums, his 2001 film re-released on Blu-Ray by The Criterion Collection.
The Royal Tenenbaums is kind of a Christmas story too, one of reconciliation and forgiveness in a stylised New York winter. The titular family’s surname was taken from Anderson’s friend Brian Tenenbaum, who makes a brief cameo as a paramedic near the end of this film, but it also recalls the German carol ‘O Tannenbaum’. At two points in the film Vince Guaraldi’s song ‘Christmas Time is Here’, from A Charlie Brown Christmas, plays. Eagle-eyed viewers have noticed evidence, in the form of tree leaves, that some of the film was shot in seasons other than winter: fascinating stuff, obviously, but completely irrelevant. Just as Anderson, a Texan, sets the film in an imaginary version of New York complete with made-up streets, the film’s time period and season are similarly, wistfully vague. Maybe this story didn’t really happen at Christmas, but the imaginary novel Anderson frames the film as an adaptation of sets it there because it feels right. Understanding this – the way that Anderson and his co-writer Owen Wilson position the film’s artificial elements as a way of mediating and amplifying the emotion at its core – will prevent you from making the same mistake critics initially did, and writing it off as emotionless.
Because The Royal Tenenbaums is a profoundly sad, moving and redemptive film. It stands, at the time of writing, as the last of Anderson’s three writing collaborations with his regular star Wilson, and it could be a summary of their work together. The theme of early success and decline, already prominent in Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, is pushed to absurd extremes in a long opening montage showing all three of the Tenenbaum children as child prodigies in different fields, then cutting to their deeply dysfunctional, idle adulthood. Every Wes Anderson film has something at least slightly transgressive in it – think of the sudden eruptions of violence in The Grand Budapest Hotel, or the “cuss”ing in Fantastic Mr Fox – but The Royal Tenenbaums makes these moments feel less jarring. The humour is so sad, and the sadness is so funny, that it can play Ritchie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson)’s nervous breakdown in the middle of a tennis match as an awkward comedy routine without coming off as callous.
Anderson and Wilson’s writing process involved elaborating wildly on simple premises, and the central conceit of adapting a non-existent novel allowed them to cram a whole book’s worth of richly imagined detail into their montages. It’s the sort of film where someone’s favourite moment might be the compilation of Etheline Tenenbaum’s failed suitors, the titles of Margot Tenenbaum’s plays, or the cover of her husband Raleigh St. Clair’s book, all of which are visible on screen for a few fleeting seconds. Those characters are played by Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow and Bill Murray, respectively, all of whom integrate perfectly into the first of Anderson’s all-star casts. Elsewhere there’s Gene Hackman in a role Anderson wrote specifically for him as the neglectful but still strangely charming paterfamilias Royal, as well as terrific work from Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Danny Glover.
It’s almost impossible to work out what might have come first in the enormous labyrinth of character relationships that constitutes Anderson and Wilson’s script, but one fulcrum is the relationship between Glover, Hackman and Paltrow. Royal has only returned to the family he abandoned because he’s heard his wife might be marrying Henry (Glover), and his anxiety over his status in the clan is particularly acute when faced with his adoptive daughter Margot. We first see Royal interact with Margot by introducing her to strangers as “our adopted daughter”, but when he returns to the family he finds that she’s become much more of a ‘real’ Tenenbaum than he could ever be. At one point Royal tries to end an argument over Henry by shouting “He’s not your real father!”, to which Margot simply, accurately and coldly responds: “Neither are you.”
Paltrow underplays that line perfectly, as do all of the cast. Murray, obviously, is an old hand at the comedy of understatement, and transforms one apparently banal line (“So, she smokes?”) into one of the biggest laughs of the movie. Owen Wilson, as friend of the family Eli Cash, proves himself a perfect apprentice to Murray, taking potentially wacky scenarios such as Cash’s drugged-up TV interview (“Wildcatsssss… pssssshhh… pow…”) and making them of a piece with the quiet, bittersweet tone of the film. There’s a lot of surprisingly broad comedy in the film, actually – Henry falling down a hole might be the simplest gag of Anderson’s career, and it works terrifically. But what lingers is the characters and the extent to which Anderson and Wilson care so deeply for them and forgive them their failings.
In a collection of cast interviews included in the extras, Owen Wilson says that comedy for him always has an underpinning of melancholy. Seeing how clearly this comes across in The Royal Tenenbaums, and comparing it to the simplistic Hollywood comedies he’s been making recently, it’s hard not to wish he’d get behind the writing desk again. In the meantime, we have this Blu-Ray. Criterion’s American releases of Anderson’s works have become rightly legendary among his fans, so it’s great to see one of them finally come to UK audiences. The attention to detail involved in assembling this package matches that shown by Anderson and his crew in the behind-the-scenes featurettes – an attention to detail that also comes through in more unexpected ways. The most entertaining extra, for example, is a chat show hosted by one Peter Bradley, who makes a terrible hash of interviewing some of Anderson’s supporting players and friends. Can Bradley actually be real? Rewatch the film, keep your eyes and ears peeled, and you’ll get your answer.