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The Royal Tenenbaums – A Second Look

January 15, 2010

About a month ago, I decided to seek counsel from my coterie regarding the Wes Anderson film The Royal Tenenbaums. When compiling my Best-Of lists for the decade, I noticed that Tenenbaums appeared in a whole bunch of Top Twentys, including venerable sites like The Onion’s AV Club and Paste. I was dizzy with confusion, for I did not recall the immaculate detail or the intricately-crafted family dynamic described in the multiple positive reviews, especially that of Lloyd. When I originally sat down to watch Tenenbaums, I expected another Rushmore, which won my adulation in the first five minutes, as Herman Blume (Bill Murray) tells a private-school assembly to “Take dead aim at the rich boys, get them in your crosshairs, and TAKE THEM DOWN!” As I noticed that anti-establishment aesthetic was replaced with the trials of a dysfunctional family, my brain checked out. As I mentioned in the blurb about Donnie Darko within my Top Eleven, it is near impossible for me to ignore my own world when watching a movie. After learning that society’s “thank you” for a History degree and two years of AmeriCorps was a $7-an-hour temp position collating coupons for Laura’s Lean Beef, a film about the grown-up failures of ambitious children was not exactly the escapism I sought.

As years passed, I completely forgot about TRT. Not until the aforementioned lists did I even consider giving the film a second chance.[i] Ironically, my life’s situation is not remarkably different – unemployment following a dual-degree masters program and the realization that I’ll always be the dreaded Reader in a largely couch-potato family – so a second viewing was not likely to result in a legitimate re-evaluation of Anderson’s third film. Despite the contemporary obstacles, I found TRT to be a far-more rewarding experience than that initial false start. The oft-cited quirkiness was all over the place – the serious narration, the accounts of past childhood greatness, and the acknowledgement of the perils of peaking too soon in life. I loved the nod to fellow Austinite David Foster Wallace in the portrayal of Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson)[ii] as a Hal Incandenza-style victim of circumstances that are somewhat, but not completely, beyond his control. The ubiquitous paintings of adopted sibling Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), the piles and piles of books, and the cast of associate “members” of the family were far more memorable in Viewing 2. Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller) established himself as one of my all-time favorite movie villains, joining this select group:

Darryl Jenks (Eriq LaSalle), Coming to America and Mark Taylor Jackson (Jason Schwartzman), Funny People. I have a difficult time separating these two, due to their excessive narcissism coupled with a cripplingly-comedic insecurity. Darryl smiles after viewing his Soul Glo commercial; whereas Mark forces dates to watch the two-part specials of “Yo Teach!”, his more-cliché-than-cliché shitcom. Both enjoyed the company of the woman desired by the protagonists, yet when Daisy (Aubrey Plaza) and Lisa (Shari Headley) abandon them for Ira (Seth Rogen) and Akeem (Eddie Murphy)[iii], neither villain made a legitimate effort to regain their respective dame’s affection. It was no surprise that LaSalle would later make a star-turn in ER – despite claiming a massive collection-plate donation, attempting to justify his inaction during the McDowell’s robbery (by Samuel L. Jackson!), and all-in-all smarminess, he still managed a coolness that mirrored John Oates. Schwartzman, unfortunately, has never recaptured what I loved most about his portrayal of Rushmore’s Max Fischer – a rare melancholic optimism, reminiscent of Josh Hamilton from Kicking and Screaming. I expect more from JS – perhaps the failure of Bored to Death to capture my attention has unfairly stained his other work. We’ll see.

If the canon of great directors were compared to the early-90s Seattle music scene, Judd Apatow would be Pearl Jam, with Coming to America’s John Landis as Alice in Chains. Like Pearl Jam, Apatow spent a few years building a fanbase before a meteoric rise to prominence, creating clever TV programs like Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared, and producing underrated fare like The Cable Guy and Anchorman. After directing The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, the cineplexes were swarmed with Creeds, Puddles of Mudddds and Seven Mary Three Doors Downs such as Sexdrive and The House Bunny. And like Pearl Jam, Apatow unfairly received blame for those opportunists that saw dollar signs in the reproduction of his “Maximum Bro” while omitting all the  mindwork that likely scared away the Tappa Kegga Brew crowd. John Landis gave us Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, Trading Places, The Blues Brothers, and Coming to America before the death of his Layne-Staleyesque instincts that stuck it to the man (KFM was Dirty, and CTA was Sappy). While AIC are still around (and from what I heard at Paul The Geek’s place, still capable of a verse with off-kilter vocal harmonies), and Landis is still producing films, the contrast between pre-CTA and after is quite stark.

Oh yeah, Tenenbaums. While I am only the 4,956th person to notice this, there is a crazy web of wrongdoing perpetrated on several characters, yet, in each case, the instigator is not only forgiven, but they remain in a relationship with the recipient. Royal, the patriarch (Gene Hackman – and really, who else could have played him? Those of you screaming “Tony Danza” can sit the hell down, thank you very much), kept Pagoda’s employ, despite sustaining a nasty stab wound during their initial meeting. Richie was crushed by Margot’s appearance with her beau at his biggest tennis match, yet still maintained a dream of a Clueless-style ending. Royal attends the wedding of his ex-wife Etheline (Anjelica Houston) and her new lover Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), despite seeking a reconciliation with her. The list goes on and on, to the point where Chas’ holdout from allowing his sons to have a relationship with Royal became a jarring anomaly – I had to stop myself from yelling “Hey Mr. Dodgeball Zoolander, just freaking LET IT GO!” While not a textbook villain, in my book, that’s a helluva lot of evil, and Stiller just kills it.


[i] One other note – I caught that Anderson likes his typefaces, but I was completely unaware that Futura was used only for Tenenbaum-related ephemera, whereas Helvetica was employed for details falling outside of the family, such as the cover of Raleigh St Clair’s (Bill Murray) books.

[ii] After viewing Luke and Owen in several films, I used to ask “Could you imagine either one of them as a commercial pitchman? Which company would have the cash to purchase the five-minute spot needed for either brother to finish the copy?” Now look at Luke, all quick ‘n shit on those phone company ads. Who knew?

[iii] As hard as this may be to believe, Eddie Murphy was once synonymous with Comedy. Yes, kids, his run from Saturday Night Live through stand-up specials like Delirious and Raw, films like Beverly Hills Cop I & II, and Trading Places was pretty freaking great. Now we get smegma like Norbit. Ahh, Eddie. We hardly knew ye.

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