like King Lear, is "a poor old man, as full of grief as age."
Facing his mortality, he wishes his three grown offspring to "forget
But Wes Anderson's "The Royal Tenenbaums" was not modeled
on Lear. Anderson ("Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore")
and his college buddy Owen Wilson, co-author of the screenplay,
were inspired by J. D. Salinger's fictional Glass family. While
perhaps not as fragile as Glass, most of the Tenenbaums seem depressed
enough to swim into the abyss with the bananafish.
Much of the film is like an extended New Yorker cartoon, with
various tableaux of urban angst and malaise. But, like New Yorker
cartoons, the film is clever, witty, urbane, sophisticated, and
sometimes a bit glib.
The family's story is told in the chapters of a Salingeresque
novel, the pathetic tale of Royal and his three promising, but
failed, children. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) wrote plays and designed
scenery as young girl. Now she soaks like a teabag in her tub,
television for hours. Her eyes are lined with so much black make-up,
she looks like a catatonic racoon. Her brother Chas (Ben Stiller)
was a budding entrepreneur, dreaming up schemes like
breeding and selling Dalmatian-spotted white mice. Chas has regressed
into a neurotic mess dressed perpetually in running gear and fearing
imminent danger to himself and his two mini-me sons. Richie (Luke
Wilson, brother of Owen) could have been a major tennis pro, but
up during a tournament and, while retaining his Borg sweat-band,
floats literally at sea, aimless and lost.
The mother of this dysfunctional brood is Etheline (Angelica Huston),
whose romantic interest is no longer Royal, but rather her stuffy,
somewhat prissy accountant (Danny Glover, playing against type
after so many buddy action films).
Royal (played brilliantly by Gene Hackman) tries to win back the
love and acceptance of his long-neglected family. Hackman is perfect
as a smarmy tort lawyer. He's the kind of attorney whose every
pore exudes oleagenous insincerity. Hackman gets to ham it up,
of the rest of the cast, presumably depressed and seriously deficient
in serotonin, stumble around in zombie trances.
The setting of the film is obviously New York City, with various
New York backgrounds, but transformed into Everycity (perhaps
to give the film broader appeal?). The Tenenbaums stroll through
a strange ersatz New York, where everything familiar has an unfamiliar
The Tenenbaums frequent the 375th St. Y, presumably similar to
the 92nd St. Y, only further uptown. They live on Archer Street,
which looks a lot like Convent Avenue and 144th St. in Hamilton
Heights. And Royal resides, and later works, at an elegant hotel,
the Lindbergh Palace,
that any New Yorker could identify as the Waldorf-Astoria.
The film has a boomer-hip sound track of John Lennon, Van Morrison,
Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones (another way, besides
late night TV ads, to repackage 60's and 70's hits?). Much attention
is paid to minor details-- the art on the walls, the wallpaper,
the games on
the shelves of a closet. And like a MAD magazine illustration,
there are several throw-away visual jokes, like a taxi with a
"Gypsy Cab" logo on its roof.
Although this film is about a family, it isn't exactly a family
film, unless your family savors graphic bloody suicides, rampant
drug use, various sexual situations (poor Gywneth, or a body double,
had to run the gamut of Penthouse fantasies), four-letter profanities
and, oh yes... inter-sibling incest. But this is all in good fun.
In the end, most of the problems of the family Tenenbaum could
be cured with a good shrink and lots of psychopharmacology.