Something happens in that moment when Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) steps off the Green Line bus and the soft strum of Nico’s “These Days” flutters. Light suddenly fills her space, and time drags as she comes back to Richie (Luke Wilson), the brother she hasn’t seen in years. Each step feels eternal and Richie watches unmoving, his impassive gaze telling us far more than any dialogue or exposition. It’s a towering moment, showing us a director with, among many, many other talents, the ability to construct beautiful cinema. Character, setting, light, sound, time; all just elements that Wes Anderson has blended to a moment glancing at perfection. It can take your breath away.
The Royal Tenenbaums, like Salinger’s Glasses, are a family past their prime. Their childhood genius, once renowned, has long since been swept under the carpet to be replaced by dysfunction far more intriguing. The siblings have parted and the tarnish on the family name is too thick to clear. It is only when the estranged father, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) has nowhere else to go that the family find themselves, for perhaps the first time, resembling something nuclear. All under the same roof, the Tenenbaums have little choice but to attempt some sort of cohesion, taking as roundabout a way as they possibly can to forgiveness, to acceptance, to a future not clinging to the past.
Wes Anderson is a bag of tricks kind of director, using elements like soundtrack and color and symmetry to impose his own aesthetic. While there’s no denying his talent, it’s his consistency that can split opinion. Some feel he’s too wrapped up in his own style to breach the upper echelon, others think him progressive. I happen to be one of the latter, but that’s not apropos to my point, which is this: aside from everything else, aside from the tricks and the vintage clothing shop tableau and the (phenomenal) soundtracks, Wes Anderson is simply a great writer. I’ll admit that he does himself a disservice shrouding his story in so much prettiness. The face value of this film is considerable and by it’s very nature, writing tends to go unnoticed. But in digging beneath the surface of Royal Tenenbaums, you find such well-written dialogue, such well-constructed scenes, that from that point onward it’s nearly all you can see. I would describe this writing as graceful both because it seems to work so effortlessly and because it doesn’t do all the work. This is the mark of a strong writer; the ability to let not only dialogue have it’s time, but silence as well. In another moment of brilliance, Anderson finds Margot and Richie lying together on a cot, in a tent he constructed within the Tenenbaum home. This is a key plot point and an especially difficult scene to navigate for it’s content, but Anderson thrives, letting brief dialogue and reticence work together, conveying much more than five minutes of pure conversation.
Let’s return to his other abilities as a director though, shall we? Clearly he’s obsessed with symmetry, often placing subjects in the center of a frame and allowing the empty space, much like the things left unsaid, to work. He’s kind of a portrait cinematographer with how often his characters are facing the camera, as can be seen in the beautiful title sequence of this film. And the color, oh the color. Wes Anderson plays in palettes like any other artist, giving everything a treatment that leaves it somehow both antique and endlessly cared for. The Tenenbaum home is a beautiful hodge podge of portraits, paintings, found items and color. Which leads me to yet another quality very few directors can claim to rival: the attention to detail. It’s nothing short of astonishing how far he goes in setting a scene, from the Margot portraits by young Richie to the bizarre paintings on Eli Cash’s (Owen Wilson) walls to the battered Taxis roaming the streets. It could easily be called overstated, but there’s something about this obsessive detail that shows you how much this director cares. Nothing is too much, and that, to me, is very refreshing.
In my opinion, this is Wes Anderson’s best film (Fantastic Mr. Fox a close second). His work occasionally suffers when Wes lets the bright and shiny parts get away from him. It can let the more important stuff fall by the wayside and leave us more impressed with his style than his substance. The Royal Tenenbaums is his best work because the balance never tips in one direction. The look is there in abundance, that Wes Anderson polish that has become so familiar, but the story and the characters are first and foremost, as they should be. And with this harmony, Wes Anderson has constructed a film I’ll be watching for many years to come.