Every film, regardless of what you want to do with it, what style you want to present it in or what story you want to tell (or not tell) must have structure. You can have the strangest environment, most confusing characters, story or the goriest, most exploitive movie ever… but it must have a structure. The film must feel like its going somewhere, not just a bunch of scenes linked together because you have quirky characters to take advantage of.
Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums is, for the most part, a film of structure and direction, tied together with quirky characters, strange events and bizarre scenes. It’s an offbeat, indie-style film but it does have a main story which keeps you invested and interested, regardless of how you feel about the ensemble of characters. Unfortunately, this only lasts for the first ninety minutes and for the last twenty, the movie becomes a series of muddled, mismanaged events.
It’s almost as if Wes Anderson had a great idea for a film but had no real idea how to end it. To his credit, the movie does begin fantastically and completely sucks you in. The narration is great and the backstory of the Tenenbaums is presented in a brilliant way. I would rather have seen an extended version of this as the film, rather than skipping over the interesting, bizarre but well-imagined history of the family.
The film as a whole is a good story. Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum wants to reconnect with the family he has lost contact with. To do this he decides to tell his family he is dying. This brings the collection of quirky, unusual and very unique characters back together from the many different places they have found themselves. This is where the film presents its biggest triumph, the cast. The casting of each of the family members, on every occasion, is nothing less than genius.
Any film, especially back in 2001, would have paid a high price for a cast that included Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen and Luke Wilson, Danny Glover and Bill Murray. I could spend another few hundred words explaining how each of them are perfect for their part and bring something unique and fresh to the movie, all of which is true, but it’s actually testament to the one actor I’ve not mentioned, because he stands head and shoulders above the rest – Gene Hackman.
In a film that is full of different, extreme and often silly characters, Hackman is actually the most sane, logical and “straight” of the characters. He has a well-imagined plan, an honest motive and very clear view of his kids and his wife. At times, especially when he is talking to his grandchildren, he comes across as the most “normal.” It also makes him the most watchable and likable character. I get put off by any character that has a quirk or a unique “trait” that becomes their defining feature. Hackman’s Royal has a plan and his motive and that is the best feature of all the characters.
Unfortunately, that motive, and subsequently, the film’s key structure and direction, is changed about three-quarters of the way through. I could forgive the crazy nature of the movie and what the characters were doing while the film had some sort of direction and purpose but after Royal is confronted, the film seems directionless and resorts to farce and craziness. The scenes become more extreme and silly and it begins to feel quirky and unusual for the sake of it. It’s almost like Wes Anderson is trying hard to make a Wes Anderson film: poor imitation of his own work.
It’s a shame because the rest of the film is funny, brilliantly acted and very well written. The backstories of the characters are the best part of the whole film and each of the characters becomes those individuals very well. It’s just a shame that Anderson doesn’t seem to know what to do with those individuals once he has got them all together.
Overall, The Royal Tenenbaums is what I imagine a Wes Anderson film would be. Its got some very good ideas, an amazing cast who play their parts fantastically and some very unusual, quirky characters. Unfortunately, I’m beginning to associate Wes Anderson with structureless, “unusual for the sake of it” storytelling and this movie becomes that for the last twenty minutes, tainting the brilliant work that had gone before.
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)