Family Album

Film still for Family Album

In Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums a family of wealthy but burnt-out prodigies reforms to start again. Jonathan Romney examines this richly crammed compendium of glum little epiphanies, and finds its deadpan wit as clean and bracing as a stiff Martini

In most current American mainstream cinema, it's hard to detect much of what you might call a 'signature' - an unmistakable authorial stamp. But in his new film The Royal Tenenbaums, director Wes Anderson uses a stylistic device that could well serve as a running gag on the very notion of signature. The film is crammed with sardonic intertitle-like asides to the viewer, packaged in a distinctive typographic style - a sober, straight-edged sans serif. It features in the opening and closing credits and throughout the film in the form of superimposed captions that tell us we are on the second floor of the Tenenbaum family mansion, or witnessing one character's case history, or simply seeing a glove altered (caption: 'Alteration of glove'). But the same font also runs through the film's fictional world, as if programmed into its molecular structure: on the frontages of hospitals and museums, outside shipping offices, even on the little hood that spells out the name of the family's pet falcon Mordecai. To a designer's eye, this may well be a standard typeface, but Anderson makes it so much his own it ought really to be named 'Royal Tenenbaum'.

Audacious eccentricity

The prevalence of the Royal Tenenbaum font indicates just how much Wes Anderson's latest is a 'written' film, in every sense. Narrated in impeccably dry voiceover by Alec Baldwin, it presents itself as if it was the screen adaptation of an apocryphal novel. We see The Royal Tenenbaums in book form at the opening, stamped as an unseen borrower withdraws it from the public library - at once a twist on the old Hollywood device of leafing through a book's pages in the opening credits and a nostalgic nod to a cinematic bibliophilia from before Oprah's reign. The film's family saga, according to Anderson, is partly a nod to the tale of the brilliant-but-doomed Glass family chronicled by J.D. Salinger in such books as Franny and Zooey (1961). Anderson's film is even divided into chapters: we see the first page of each one in turn, featuring a cartoon of a lead character and starting with a few lines that might be decanted from the script's own scene descriptions: 'Royal's suite at the Lindbergh Palace Hotel. There are shelves full of law books and hundreds of spy novels in stacks on the floor.' But are we supposed to see the film as the adaptation of a non-existent novel, or is it more a case of the film somehow incorporating its own 'inspired-by-the-movie' novelisation? In a further self-referential twist, the start of Chapter 8 describes a wedding invitation; we are told it is 'nearly identical' to the card that appears on the cover of the first edition of the novel we are supposedly reading.

The literary conceit (or conceitedness, as some will surely see it) is a sublimely dandyish move on the part of Anderson and his star/co-writer Owen Wilson, who plays the Tenenbaums' neighbour, the foppish, drug-addled novelist Eli Cash. And the voiceover, in the style of a wry puppeteer-novelist detachedly pulling his characters' strings, very much defines the film's mood. Even to those who relished the otherworldly strangeness of Anderson's last film Rushmore (1998), a public-school comedy of longing, disappointment and freakishness, The Royal Tenenbaums must come as a surprise, a genuine UFO among American screen comedies. Its US box-office takings may have been modest - at the time of writing, $37 million since its December release - but the movie's audacious eccentricity has won plenty of acclaim. In Film Comment magazine, which declared The Royal Tenenbaums film of the year, Kent Jones lauded Anderson as the most distinctive American comedy voice since Preston Sturges.

The Royal Tenenbaums is a sui generis turn, and Anderson has a totally idiosyncratic comic temperament - an acerbic melancholy tinged with nostalgia and a faintly psychedelic zaniness. But the peculiar thing about this film is that it's not terribly funny - not in the conventional way. It didn't actually make me laugh more than a couple of times, and then with a raised eyebrow rather than a guffaw. But a comedy doesn't always need to make you laugh as such: it can simply delight you with its singularity, or make you savour the appositeness or improbability of a particular shot, choice of music, the lilt of a one-liner. Anderson's artistic choices tend to be so unpredictable, so rich and (not a word I'd choose to use often) charming, that straight-out laughter seems beside the point.

Prodigal pop

In fact, The Royal Tenenbaums may well make you laugh, and even, despite its ironic distanciation, feel a lump in the throat. On a first viewing, you may be so bowled over or baffled by the swagger of the execution, and by the sheer rush of images and information, that you may be at a loss to pin down quite what the movie is about. Pare down the information overload, however, and the story is simpler than it appears. This is a family saga, beginning with the purchase of a big brownstone house on New York's swanky and entirely apocryphal Archer Avenue, by patriarch Royal Tenenbaum himself (Gene Hackman, more rakishly genial than we've seen him for a long time). His cerebral, supremely self-possessed wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) raises three prodigiously gifted children - Margot is a precocious playwright, Richie a tennis wiz, and Chas a nerd entrepreneur who breeds a race of Dalmatian mice. These children - whose adult incarnations are Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson and Ben Stiller respectively - are celebrated in Etheline's book Family of Geniuses, but their short-lived adult success will peter out calamitously. Richie blows a fuse mid-match, Margot lapses into elegant panda-eyed depression (of a sublimely soignée variety you never imagined Paltrow could pull off), and widowed Chas retreats into control-freak neurosis, endlessly putting his identical (and identically track-suited) twin boys through fire-drill practice.

Meanwhile Royal, a flamboyant shyster lawyer - a more sang-froid descendant of Groucho Marx's professional ganefs - left the family years ago under a cloud. This appalling prodigal pop emerges early on in all his blithe callousness, after a glimpse of Margot's first play, in which the Tenenbaum kids take a curtain call dressed as jungle animals. 'It didn't seem believable to me,' responds Royal, his bluff candour estranging the zebra-suited Margot.

The multiple strands mapped out in the first 20 minutes or so converge when all the Tenenbaums reunite at the family house - the kids to face their various traumas, Royal because he's out of money. For a while, he cons the family into believing he's dying of cancer - an outrageously off-colour joke that would surely look like Tom Green material if not for Anderson's and Hackman's dapper touch.

Living illustrations

If the film has any high-concept pitch, it's a refutation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald maxim that 'There are no second acts in American lives.' The Tenenbaums' second act is the stuff of the film: all the glory is behind them, flaunted with ironic flashiness as ludicrous backstories. Anderson's most elaborate joke is the exhaustiveness with which he fabricates these backstories, fleshing out the absurd but rich universe of the Tenenbaums and their entourage. The film starts with a six-minute pre-credits sequence of pure exposition, recapping the Tenenbaum careers to date - a breathless succession of shots, each seeming more elaborately artificed than the last, with Baldwin's narrator telling us more than we can easily process in one gulp - all set to an instrumental version of the Beatles' 'Hey Jude'. As spoken expositions go, it's as exhaustive (and as exhausting) as Robert De Niro's opening lecture on the workings of Las Vegas in Scorsese's Casino, and just as outrageous a flouting of film's show-don't-tell rule. When the song breaks into its 'nah-nah-nah' coda, we're suddenly granted release from the increasingly oppressive listing of facts, and the succession of highly staged, static shots is replaced by a rapturous glide over the city skyline, following the flight of Richie's pet falcon Mordecai.

Anderson's most flamboyant gesture is his insistence on always giving us the whole backstory, never stinting: if the film tells us something, we can be sure we will see it too. Instead of simply alluding to Etheline's several suitors, it shows them to us in a series of head-and-shoulders shots that resemble sumptuously staged tableaux vivants, each identified by a strapline in the familiar Tenenbaum typeface: the British polar explorer, the Japanese architect, the Hustonesque Hollywood director. The film's best extended gag is a résumé, prepared by a private detective, of Margot's promiscuous past - set to the Ramones' 'Judy Is a Punk', it's a breakneck sequence of shots ranging from a lesbian interlude in Paris to a snog with a native of Papua New Guinea. After which series of revelations, all Margot's befuddled neurologist husband Raleigh St Clair (Bill Murray) can say is, 'She smokes?'

Similarly, if we hear about Richie's portraits of Margot, they have to appear, filling a wall of the family house. Each of Margot's plays has its own poster; every book mentioned appears with its own specially designed and entirely believable cover, from Eli's Wild West novel to the accounting manual by Etheline's suitor Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). Anderson and production designer David Wasco stretch to its extreme the movie convention by which screen families are fitted out with their own authentic-seeming papers of identity - a recent example would be the assorted family snapshots and memorabilia that fill out the house in Todd Field's In the Bedroom. Anderson goes one better. He furnishes his characters' world to the point of saturation, making them seem not more realistic but more fictional - or rather, making us wonder if we can tell the difference. The film's curiously hermetic tone extends to its wholesale customised reinvention of New York, now equipped with a mythical and omnipresent taxi firm (the crumbling, battered Gypsy Cabs), a matching Green Line bus company, plus apocryphal hotels, hospitals and the 375th St Y, located somewhere off the edge of the known map of Manhattan.

We're never quite sure whether the film's characters are flesh-and-blood incarnations of people who originated on the pages of a novel, or whether they are living illustrations, inhabiting an illustrated world. Certainly the overall stylisation and the formal framings by DoP Robert Yeoman make The Royal Tenenbaums seem in its poised, urbane way as cartoonish a live-action film as Robert Altman's Popeye. Characters are visually schematised, given distinctive looks: Bill Murray's bird's-nest beard, Luke Wilson's pained horse face. They tend to wear the same clothes throughout: Murray's caramel jackets, Wilson's beige suit over tennis shirt, Stiller and the twin Tenenbaum boys in matching red tracksuits. These are cartoon people wearing cartoon clothes, and the shooting style adds to this effect - characters often appear framed in windows and other apertures as if they were Punch and Judy puppets or figures in Joseph Cornell boxes. Anderson cultivates symmetries to a degree unseen since Peter Greenaway's A Zed and Two Noughts, characteristically shooting down the centre of tables, or framing Chas' boys like mirror-image putti. He also has a signature device of panning round at 90 degrees, used to singularly beautiful effect in a shot where Margot and Eli meet at the centre point of a V-bend walkway.

Most characters, in fact, appear in the film both as live-action people and as their own cartoon images - whether in the chapter-heading illustrations or in the portraits adorning the Tenenbaum mansion. Richie's childhood paintings - actually executed by Wes Anderson's younger brother Eric - are barely visible in detail, but recall the scratchy mock-primitive sketches of New York cartoonists Roz Chast (a New Yorker regular) and Lynda Barry (Village Voice). Another illustrator brought to mind is master of fine hatching Pierre Le Tan, a regular designer of Faber and Faber book covers who also drew the poster image for another uptown New York fantasy, Whit Stillman's 1989 Metropolitan. The film's faintly gothic flavour - more in its architecture than in any macabre undertones - also suggests that the Tenenbaums are worldlier cousins to the similarly hidebound cartoon family created by Charles Addams, or descendants of the late Edward Gorey's doomed orphans and fatigued aesthetes.

Jukebox melancholia

It's no accident, either, that the film's soundtrack twice features Vince Guaraldi's famously melancholic theme from the television cartoon A Charlie Brown Christmas. What are the Tenenbaum kids if not the Peanuts gang's posher neighbours grown up to be even more neurotic than Linus and co? After all, the film is very much a contemplation on childhood's discontents - on the realisation your parents are never quite who you want them to be, on the way you never grow up to fulfil the dreams of childhood, only prosaic adult versions of them. It is in this sense of post-nursery lamentation that the film achieves its richest poetry, not least because of the soundtrack. Rushmore was already distinctive in its choice of arcane British 60s pop (minor Who, the Creation, even Chad and Jeremy!), but Anderson, aided by music supervisor Randy Poster, goes one better in The Royal Tenenbaums and develops a soundtrack language as idiosyncratic and meaning-steeped as Scorsese's.

In this jukebox of bedsit melancholia, the key moments are glum little epiphanies. One is the jump-cut sequence in which Richie trims his hair and beard, then slashes his wrists for love of his adopted sister Margot, all to the plaintive, rhythmic chug of Elliott Smith's 'Needle in the Hay'. Another is the moment when Margot steps off a coach to meet Richie. Her dreamy slow-motion stride towards him is set to the chanting of another absent-eyed ice queen - Nico's 1968 cover of Jackson Browne's 'These Days', with its poignantly monotone contemplation of helpless, enervated loss ('These days I seem to think a lot/Of all the things that I forgot to do'). Richie and Margot share another poignant nursery pop moment, in the bright yellow enclosure of his childhood tent, as they listen to two moody tracks off the Rolling Stones' mid-60s album Between the Buttons - the baroque rarity 'She Smiled Sweetly', followed by the equally jaded 'Ruby Tuesday'. Apart from the tender continuity of tone, this may be the only film I have ever seen in which characters actually listen to two consecutive tracks from the same LP (whether or not they actually appear in this sequence on any extant edition of Between the Buttons).

How, then, to place this magnificent oddity of a film? You could almost see it as a sort of 60s record album itself. If Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, with its aspirations to encyclopedic knowledge of the world and to apocalyptic grandeur, offers itself as the 21st-century movie-brat generation's Sergeant Pepper, then I like to think of The Royal Tenenbaums - spacier, flip, drunk on its own heady facetiousness - as the screen equivalent of Smile, Brian Wilson's never completed 1967 folly for the Beach Boys. But as a film, The Royal Tenenbaums is harder to place. Commentators, Wes Anderson included, have noted parallels with Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, Renoir's La Règle du jeu and Truffaut's Jules et Jim, for that breakneck opening sequence. And it surely has among its forebears the foppish dryness of Elaine May's 1970 comedy A New Leaf. As for present-day comparisons, in its boldness and its relish for tricks Anderson's film belongs to the same mood and moment as Magnolia, David Fincher's Fight Club and Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich.

But in the kind of questions it poses about style, the true contemporary comparison might well be - odd as this may sound - Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie. The likeness struck me early on in The Royal Tenenbaums - both films kick off with a densely crammed exposition in the measured voice of an Olympian novelist figure. And in both films hardly an inch of the screen has been left to chance, hardly an image has not been carefully constructed. Both movies, you might say, show us too much, or at least more than we are used to seeing - both Jeunet and Anderson will go to extreme lengths to compose elaborate tableaux just for the purpose of a brief single shot. Both films are total celebrations of artifice and intention, both so overloaded with image upon image (and sometimes image within image) that they could stand as the foundation of a hypothetical Cinema of Saturation.

Smile or squint

So why is it that I react to The Royal Tenenbaums with a sense of dizzy possibility, while Amélie leaves me more than a little nauseated? It's not to do with the films' respective dryness and cuteness, the fact that one is like a stiff Martini, the other an over-syruped diabolo menthe. It's more a matter of Amélie being pre-programmed to tickle our sense of cultural pleasure, to flatter us with images that communicate all their meaning in one glance, most insidiously when they present themselves as somehow subtle: for instance, in the degraded Magritte trompe-l'oeil of a digitised cloud formation concealing the image of a teddy bear. In The Royal Tenenbaums, everything is staged every bit as much, although by hand, as it were, rather than by computer - it's no surprise to learn that the big culminating shot, with the entire cast arranged round a fire engine, took eight hours to set up. And yet nothing communicates with the same obvious immediacy as Jeunet's images. Anderson's gags leave us uncertain whether to smile or to squint so as to make out what else an image might be hiding. With Anderson's images, seductive as they are, we can ultimately only guess - what Margot's plays are about, or who Etheline's suitors are, or what the fine detail of Richie's wall paintings might be.

And that makes Anderson's film an exhilarating experience, a real jungle gym for the imagination. This film doesn't demand respect for its designing deity, as Amélie does. Where Jeunet's authorial stance sees him masquerading as providence itself, the whiz-kid director of The Royal Tenenbaums manages to pass himself off as a precociously gifted child curious to see what he can do with his fancy toy theatre and all the funny lifelike figures that go with it. Oddly, while The Royal Tenenbaums is very much authored by Wes Anderson, the novel called The Royal Tenenbaums doesn't seem, as far as we can see from the flyleaf, to have a signature attached. There's no author terrorism here - the film's real author, the one who makes sense out of its lavish tangle, is that mysterious library borrower who takes out the novel at the film's start. For some 95 minutes, we have The Royal Tenenbaums out on loan, and its readerly, writerly pleasures are all ours.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012