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 thoughts on “The Royal Tenenbaums

  1. 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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