The Royal Tenenbaums (Anderson, 2001) — Ten Years Later

In the annals of writing instruction, few dicta are more often repeated than “show, don’t tell.”

Like any generalization, this has both the core of truth to support it and a broadness to keep it from being too narrowly defined. It also has backlash. Nobody ever made himself looked smarter than the crowd by repeating the crowd’s favorite saying, and film critics love to get out in front rather than saying “me too.”

Like any generalization, too, this one has enough exceptions to make anyone relying upon it for a critical judgement look like a rube. Shakespeare did a lot more telling than showing, for one, and his word pictures are some of the best writing in the history of the English language.

I thought about “show don’t tell” a lot while screening The Royal Tenenbaums for the first time in ten years, particularly during the long, voice over introduction by Alec Baldwin’s narrator. We are used to these sorts of narrative setups being briefer, establishing the characters. When it continues longer than a minute or two, we get unmoored rather than situated. Is the whole movie going to be this way?

What I Said Then

In my picks for the best films of 2001, I had Wes Anderson’s breakout at number four, saying:

“Did you do it because of me?”

“Yes, but it’s not your fault.”

If you understand these two lines of dialogue, you understand the paradox, pathos, and power that is family. In vastly different ways The Royal Tennenbaums and In the Bedroom are about much the same thing–the inability to insulate or protect ourselves from the pain of family. What Tennenbaums has that Bedroom lacks is a vestige of hope. It recognizes that the only things capable of eliciting such sharp pain or melancholy are the things we care about, whether we acknowledge our caring or not. It also sees in that caring a potential for the restoration of joy. It insists that coming to terms with the effects that people and circumstances have on you can mean (and lead to) more than simply assigning guilt and blame. Not that The Royal Tennenbaums is a sentimentally redemptive film. It is too light and melancholy for that–but there is hope here. Anyone who liked Wes Anderson’s Rushmore at all liked it more than I did. The Royal Tennenbaums will no doubt elicit similarly mixed reactions. It tells the story of Royal Tennenbaum (Gene Hackman) and his fumbling attempts to restore some of the damage he has inflicted on his dysfunctional family. That his project is self-serviing he freely admits, and the film has the guts to admit that its not all his fault, even if life would be easier if we could make one person the scapegoat for all our problems. What makes this film more interesting to me than Rushmore is that it focuses primarily on adults with adult problems rather than adolescents or adults with adolescent problems. The ensemble cast is fantastic with Hackman leading the way. Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow give their characters depth rather than mannerisms and even the usually flat Ben Stiller is able to convey undercurrents of conflict in the film’s most one-note character. The Royal Tennenbaums is eccentric throughout and farcical at times, but it never sacrifices our concern for the characters to get a cheap laugh or tear.

What I Say Now

One of my current pet peeves is the critical cliche of “I can’t wait to see it again.” I think there is–or ought to be–a place for a first viewing experience that has power or entertainment value even if it doesn’t prompt repeat viewings. Plus, in a post-Star Wars age, repeat viewing often becomes as much about ritualistically trying to reenact the first experience rather than in developing and deepening it.

That said, I don’t think it signifies nothing that I have never been remotely tempted to revisit this film since my initial viewing. I got through about twenty minutes of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou before turning it off. I made it all the way through The Darjeeling Limited on DVD, though now, three years later or so, I can’t remember a single thing about it. I did enjoy The Fantastic Mr. Fox, but…

Anderson’s films, even when I’ve liked them, haven’t worn well with me. Some of it may be my own backlash against the sorts of quirky fans who always want to insist that his work is the best thing ever. It didn’t surprise me, then, that I really didn’t enjoy the film on a ten year’s later revisit. What did surprise me was how opposed I was to my previous judgment in the particulars as well as the generalizations. The performances struck me as mannered rather than authentic. My line about not sacrificing concern for character in exchange for a cheap laugh struck me as false when I was watching Danny Glover’s character climb out of an archeology pit that he fell into (unnoticed) while declaring his love for Etheline (Anjelica Huston). Perhaps it is because we don’t actually see the fall but only the aftereffects of it, we are able to elide these moments from our memory. It is like the laugh is so cheap it isn’t memorable and so one doesn’t hold it against the film.

I wonder, in retrospect, how much of my early enthusiasm was informed by the fact that I was living in the middle of nowhere, had to drive two hours to get to a movie house that was playing the film, and saw it as a double feature with Mulholland Drive. I had (and still have) pleasant memories of the experience of the incursion to go see the film. Then again, I have pleasant memories of going to see Hollow Man with the same friend and then trashing it at dinner afterwards. Sometimes going to the movies is so much fun, it doesn’t really matter what’s playing.

The Verdict

The quirky comedy that mixes pathos with self-deprecating humor is old hat now, and I’ve come to realize that the genre grates on me more than a little. The execution of the film is undeniable, but there is a nihilistic, self-protective cynicism about the whole genre that wearies me. Sure, there is enough pathos to make all but the most hardened audience member feel like an ass if he actually despises these characters, even though most of them despise themselves. It is almost as though the self-despising is supposed to be the redemptive quality that makes them bearable.

I can’t quite shake the feeling that the world view that permeates this film genre is that life is an inherently miserable, humiliating experience…that the only joy in it is the supremacy and uniqueness of your particular misery. It’s like a proud despair, almost as if the heroic stoicism of the modernists has crumbled and shown beneath it a sickly, pallid, postmodern gilded stoicism that doesn’t fool anyone, least of all the people wearing it.

Then again, I’ve lost several loved ones in the last six months, so perhaps my soul is just thirsty for something hopeful. Maybe if I came back to The Royal Tenenbaums in another ten years, I might be in a better frame of mind to appreciate the film’s qualities.

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