Wes Anderson’s films are all or nothing propositions. If you don’t give yourself over to their peculiarities, they may seem like slight, affected whimsy machines, running on nothing but attitude and quirk. But if you do fall under their sway, there’s nothing remotely like them: Rushmore, Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums are miraculous, the richest, most exciting work to appear in the American cinema in years.
In Anderson’s new film, Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum, an aging New York City lawyer who deserted his family twenty years ago. In his absence, his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) – who never bothered to divorce him – raised her brood to be geniuses. Though she wrote a bestseller about the experience, she ended up with three woefully maladjusted prodigies who peaked young and flamed out horribly before they hit 30.
After a dizzying, hilarious ten minute opening that introduces the characters and fills in the story thus far with digressive, novelistic detail, the story proper kicks in. Royal, disbarred and down on his luck, decides that he wants his family back. Claiming to be six weeks away from his deathbed, he insinuates himself into Etheline’s home. At the same time, recently widowed youngest child Chas (Ben Stiller) has moved back home, sons Ari and Uzi in tow. Adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) has fallen into a profound depression, spending six hours a day watching television from the bathtub. When she hears that Chas has returned home, she insists on doing the same, leaving her neurologist husband Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) behind. The news of his father’s imminent demise brings globetrotting ex-tennis star Richie (Luke Wilson) back to the fold, as well as Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), a family friend who grew up with the children.
In an era where arid minimalists like Neil LaBute are praised for their dogged persistence in illustrating their monochromatic visions of the world, Anderson and co-scenarist Owen Wilson cram more incident and character – more life – into their film’s opening than most movies manage in their entirety. On first viewing, the careening pace and eccentric rhythms are as demanding as they are pleasurable, but the movie expands after living with it: seemingly tossed off jokes and situations gain weight on reflection, so that, like Rushmore, it plays in memory less as a headlong rush than as a tale so impossibly full that it continues to unfold for days afterwards.
Though it’s the density of Anderson’s teeming style that makes his movies so exhilarating to watch, it’s the depth of their emotion that makes them even more pleasurable to recollect. As funny and harried as these films are, they are shot through with real grief. Chas’ recently dead wife haunts this film, as does Royal’s callous disregard for his family’s feelings. (When Ethilene asks him "Why didn’t you give a damn about us? Why didn’t you care?" he has no answer.) Hackman wrings laughs from his misbehavior – his response to the debut of Margot’s adolescent first play is both uproarious and awful in its crushing, unthinking cruelty – but it hangs, malignant, in every scene, underscoring the vivacity with pain. He destroyed his children when he left, and the movie builds towards his slow realization of the enormity of what he’s done.
What is so original – and mysterious – about these films is the deft, offhand way they maintain their pixilated charm while exploring devastating loss. There’s a constant tension between the joking surface (here, it’s at its worst in the goofy costuming that seems designed solely to frustrate attempts to pin down when the story occurs) and the emotion roiling beneath, which generates just enough distance to avoid overwrought sentimentality. The tone they achieve is both tragic and celebratory; there is more pure joy in filmmaking, and in people, here than in a dozen other movies.
There is also a much wider frame of reference here than in the work of most young filmmakers. Where Danny Boyle or P.T. Anderson rehash Scorsese’s pyrotechnics, Anderson and Wilson aim for the lyrical absurdism of Jean Vigo, the warmth of Renoir, the complex shifting tone of Chekhov. They haven’t made it to those heights yet. But then, they’re just getting started.