Looking back now at Wes Anderson’s third film, The Royal Tenenbaums seems like the boho-brownstone bedrock of his work. Of course, Anderson’s films always seem to be looking back, at a past or past-like present, here with dictaphones, tattered ’80s dustjackets, two-dial TV sets, beaten-up Gypsy Co cabs, a packed closet of board games, push-button intercoms, pup tents, and secretaries, advisors, elevator-operators and manservants. And they’re looking back at mirrors (how the cast is introduced here) or staring at painting frames or voiceover-narrating storybook pages to us, as every shot seems to take us into another little dollhouse room—even the cemetery sequence here is divvied up into discrete plots.
Anderson’s fastidious framing and set design pairs up with his interest in cloistered, semi-absurdly self-serious, always-faintly-British eccentrics. The writer-director’s work, ever aware of itself as a carefully constructed, multi-storied film, can occasionally come off as too hermetically sealed, too navel-gazing (that’s why, for me, The Life Aquatic sank without a trace). And that may be why Gene Hackman’s patriarch Royal—a stuck-in-the-’70s, edging-on-racist, insensitive, gruff wiseguy, who says “Let’s shag ass” or “I’m lovin’ every minute with this damn crew”—so nicely spikes the punch here. Of course, he’s still an Anderson character—what other type would declare, “You’re taking my encyclopædias.* This is humiliating.” (*Undoubtedly Anderson’s preferred spelling.) But he’s also a conniving, cantankerous, bit-of-a-bastard thrill amid a slumping throng of post-precocious kidults and stunted middle-agers, lugging around their emotional hang-ups, baggage and dysfunctions.
The near-fantastic, offbeat, play-room sensibility of Anderson’s work is much of his appeal—we feel like we move in with this family for a while and the rest of the world melts away. Here the cozy-roominess slots in well with the various cornered resentments, stacked secrets and crammed cubbyholes of bad memories. Usual moments of dry wackiness are laced with poignancy; “Hey Jude” or “Ruby Tuesday” or “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard” score scenes. Still, 12 years on, The Royal Tenenbaums holds up … and holds up a mirror—it’s a strangely comforting, only-slightly-distorted reflection of the quirky little messes that so many of our own families are.