The Royal Tenenbaums

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


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.


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.


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.

2 Replies

  • I’ve nev­er thought that Wes Anderson’s movies were amaz­ing, although I did find them enter­tain­ing.

    Roy­al Tenen­baums always struck me as a ver­sion of Salinger’s “Fran­ny & Zooey” sto­ries. The fam­i­ly of super-smart kids who grow up to be quirky, depressed, etc…totally Salinger.

    Giv­en that there won’t be an actu­al movie ver­sion of any­thing Salinger ever wrote (at least, not until he dies), that aspect of the movie was enter­tain­ing…

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