The Royal Tenenbaums

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #157: Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.

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As I pointed out in my review of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, I don’t like Wes Anderson’s films. This creates a slight problem for me, since he’s got a contract with Criterion Co. to have his films [the ones I don’t like] receive their DVD treatment. The upside to this problem is that I can refine my understanding of exactly why I don’t like Wes Anderson’s films.

Much ado is made of the 4th Wall in both film and theater, but I’m not sure if there is a term that describes the audience’s awareness of the director instead of the actors. This is how I feel when I watch a Wes Anderson film; there is something about the construction that prevents me from suspending my disbelief, and instead all I see are the contrivances that make a film possible. The only other director that I can think of that makes himself visible in this way is Kieslowski in his Three Colors trilogy. Yet Kieslowski doesn’t drop as many balls as Anderson, mainly because he’s not trying to juggle as many.

In The Royal Tenenbaums I feel more like I’m watching someone play with action figures instead of watching a movie. In addition, the characters don’t seem like real people, but instead as actors playing characters. This is an inevitable consequence of filling out the cast with big names. I do not get immersed in The Royal Tenenbaums. I can understand that the movie is supposed to be a comedy, but there isn’t one point that makes me want to laugh, or even grin wryly. It isn’t my style to laugh at the sincere pain of others, no matter how ridiculously they behave or how shallow they are as characters.

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All of this is transposed to some extent in The Life Aquatic, because there is an added layer of film-making between Anderson and his characters: the “documentary” crew; which is able to bear most of the “visible director” burden I mentioned above. Because of this added layer, the characters become actors, and the viewer’s impulse is to discover who the character really is under all of the acting. The extra layer also makes it easier to suspend disbelief which, in turn, gives the comedy and tragedy some breathing room. Yet otherwise, The Life Aquatic is just The Royal Tenenbaums on the ocean.

Both films have many of the same actors, the same characters with similar unlikely backgrounds, the same plot motivations, the same quirky and unbelievable mise-en-scene, the same milquetoast denouements and the same insufficiencies; not enough comedy to be funny, and not enough character development to create true drama. I’m left with the impression that Anderson doesn’t care if his films say anything at all as long as they look shiny and smart.

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Criterion Essay by Kent Jones. [Marvel as Mr. Jones verbally fellates Wes Anderson and uses the “You Just Don’t Get It” cop-out if you disagree with him.]
IGN Behind the scenes feature including stills and video.
Tons of YouTube clips.