Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums may be the director’s most accessible movie. Featuring an all-star cast including Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anjelica Huston and the Wilson brothers, the film effortlessly translates Anderson’s lighter-than-air whimsical sense of gravitas to a set-up that is almost sitcom-like. A family of dysfunctional geniuses has fractured to pieces over the years. It’ll take the machinations of a desperate patriarch (Hackman) to bring the family back together.
What sets The Royal Tenenbaums apart – and gives the film a sublime sense of life and heft – is Anderson’s inescapable style. Using the world-building antithetic (both visual and tonal) he developed in his first two films, Anderson’s approach to The Royal Tenenbaums is that of a gifted child playing make believe. Every ounce of the film is hand-crafted and organically grown. The movie is a reflection of the artist – from the choice of font on hospital windows to the use of paint color on the Tenenbaum homestead walls to the numerous music cues that are as much a part of the film’s DNA as its cast.
Written by Anderson and Owen Wilson, The Royal Tenenbaums is a seemingly effortless film – despite the fact that the audience can plainly see every stich in the film’s fabric and the filmmaker’s thumbprint throughout. The story lays itself out with an impressive grace – providing ample introduction to the characters through voiceover narration from Alec Baldwin.
Hackman is Royal Tenenbaum – a louse of a father whose inactions and uncaring attitude created a seemingly insurmountable rift between himself and his family. Under the caring support of their mother Etheline (Huston), Royal’s children could have been anything they wanted to be. But Chas (Stiller), Margot (Paltrow) and Richie (Luke Wilson) were their father’s children – even Margot who, as Royal never forgets to point out, was adopted. Full of self-doubt, neurosis and the absence of a real family, the children grew in size but not maturity. When the trio’s various idiosyncrasies manage to simultaneously combust, they find themselves once again living in their childhood home for the first time in 22 years. Royal sees a perfect opportunity to reconnect with his grown spawn by pretending to be dying.
The ensemble cast deftly balances the film’s mix of humor and muted melancholy. This is a family torn apart by strife and mistrust. Betrayed by their father throughout their childhood, the Tenenbaums are not sure how to welcome him back into their lives and Hackman, perpetually grinning and scheming, will not let a little water under the bridge drown his attempts to save his family.
Through Anderson’s tight control of the film’s aesthetic look (there is nothing in the movie left to chance – every taxi, painting and costume exists because Anderson willed it), The Royal Tenenbaums is able to craft a reality larger than life. This enhanced visual tone helps keep the characters – sometimes prone to unbelievable levels of quirk – grounded. Save for a few sight gags, The Royal Tenenbaums never slips into slapstick. The film’s humor may be restrained but it is lathered on thick. It’s in the film’s humanity that it finds its comedy – Royal Tenenbaum experiences the first real moments of joy in his life as he reconnects with his children. The audience, thanks to the film’s patient approach to world-building, shares Royal’s euphoria every step of the way.
Rushmore may be Anderson’s rawest film emotionally and his later films have shown the director’s growth visually but The Royal Tenenbaums remains the most balanced of Anderson’s films. While some of Anderson’s latest films have wondered far from any semblance to reality, The Royal Tenenbaums – despite its wonderfully sculpted look and tone – feels like an old friend or a half-remembered book from your youth. One viewing of the movie and the film feels as if it’s always been a part of your life.
The film is presented in a 2:40:1 aspect ratio in 1080p high-definition. The soundtrack features an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Quite possibly one of the most remarkably crisp Blu-ray discs I have seen in a while, the film is beautifully reproduced in both the visual and audio departments. As with all Criterion discs, the film transfer was supervised by Anderson and features a new 2K digital transfer. A light amount of clean-up was done but not enough that the film never looses its rich celluloid feel. Colors are fantastic and the sound clear and clean. While not something you would pop out to show off your home entertainment system, this truly is worth an upgrade from the earlier Criterion produced DVD.
All special features are ported over from the 2002 Criterion DVD and the video segments are presented in full-screen 1080i or 1080p.
With the Filmmaker – A behind the scenes feature directed by famed documentation Albert Maysles, this 25-minute documentary gives a pretty through look into the directing style of Anderson via interviews, fly-on-the-wall observational footage and pre-production prep-work. A rare glimpse at the director at play.
Interviews – A collection of short EPK interviews from the film’s cast, each of these two to three minute segments range in quality. Some are nothing more than promotional fluff wihle others provide great anecdotes or insight into the actors’ involvement with the project.
Cut Scenes – A two minute collection of two short deleted scenes, the footage is cute but not essential. One interesting bit includes a look at the excised family of Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). The other scene features a nice bit of slapstick between Danny Glover and Huston.
The Peter Bradley Show – This 18-minute segment is a spot-on spoof of The Charlie Rose Show and features disjointed interviews with some of the film’s background actors and supporting characters. For those who dislike Charlie Rose’s show, there will be a few great jokes in this segment and a bunch of interesting, if fractured, trivia but nothing substantial.
Scrapbook – A wonderful collection of high-definition reproductions of the background artwork, production design and storyboards used to give the film a sense of life and history.
Commentary – The commentary from the 2002 DVD release is ported over for the Blu-ray. Anderson tackles the commentary track alone but is never at loss for words and provides an ample amount of information and insight.
Criterion presents The Royal Tenenbaums. Directed by: Wes Anderson. Starring: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover and Bill Murray. Written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson. Running time: 109 min. Rating: R. Originally released in 2001. Released on Blu-ray: August 14, 2012. Available at Amazon.com.
Tags: Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Gene Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Wes Anderson