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Wes Anderson gets his fifth Criterion Blu-ray edition with this 2001 ensemble dramedy....
Criterion / 110 Minutes / 2001 / Rated R / Street Date: August 14, 2012
I'll admit that I was initially apprehensive going into The Royal Tenenbaums, if only because of the hype surround young director Wes Anderson. Currently cinema's reigning great white geek hope, not since the rise of David Lynch has the film school contingent so embraced a budding auteur. Yet while the cineastes and the critics continue to swoon, Anderson's previous two cult classics Bottle Rocket and Rushmore failed to ignite at the box office outside of the art houses; even with the fervent fan adulation likely making up for any lack of financial success, the question facing Anderson with Tenenbaums is the same one crucial to most filmmaking hopefuls with a couple of critical successes under their belt. Could he take his penchant for "quirky" material and, with the help of a topflight cast, finally bring his talents to the attention of the mainstream?
So, just who are the Royal Tenenbaums? "Royal" Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) had three children - Chas (Ben Stiller), Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Ritchie (Luke Wilson) - who seemed headed for brilliance but peaked too early. Chas started buying real estate in his early teens and rose high in the ranks of international finance, Margo won a writing grant in ninth grade and became a playwright sensation, while Ritchie would go on to win the U.S. Nationals in tennis. But two decades later and the Royal Tenenbaums are falling apart; the elder Tenenbaums get divorced, and all the memories of brilliance quickly fade for the siblings, torn apart by lies, failures, betrayal, death and, perhaps, too much love. But now Royal is dying, and will the family be able to pull itself back together?
I suppose what most impresses about The Royal Tenenbaums is that like all great movies, the key melodrama the plot centers around - Royal's terminal illness (or is it?) - becomes secondary less than halfway through the film. By the time the surprisingly emotional payoffs come at the climax, we scarcely care any more about the machinations of the story. It becomes about characters and ideas, with Anderson's expert use of location, pace, setting, music and performance always working the service of his story's themes. Somehow he, along with longtime co-screenwriter and actor Owen Wilson manage to be both pop and classical and satiric and nostalgic at the same, but with none of the hip irony and precociousness that undermines most of today's young auteurs. These aren't two kids who are too smart for their own good.
The Royal Tenenbaums also has the biggest cast Anderson has ever worked with, and all give terrific performances. Yes, no one looks alike, but that oddly works to the film's advantage as well. I'm still surprised Hackman wasn't nominated for an Academy Award for his performance; he's far better here than he was even in his Oscar-winning turn in Unforgiven. The criminally-underused Anjelica Huston makes a long-awaited turn to quality parts as the no-nonsense Etheline, and even the sometimes grating Ben Stiller and Gwenyth Paltrow play to their respective strengths. (Who else would cast the beautiful Paltrow as a depressive, one-fingered playwright with raccoon eyes and a predilection for incest and nicotine?)
Doubtless many will be turned off by The Royal Tenenbaums, but this is just one of those films that you either you like or you don't, and a filmmaker that either you get or you don't get. I got it. And it's funny that The Royal Tenenbaums final epitaph may yet prove to be an unforeseen case of life imitating art. One of the film's key themes is that of the creative individual peaking too early and all the failure and self-doubt that comes with that awareness. It's not hard to see Anderson now in the same predicament; let's just hope the same thing doesn't happen to him.