Monday, February 6, 2023

00's Rewatch: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Watched:  02/04/2023
Format:  Apple+
Viewing:  Unknown
Director:  Wes Anderson

It may be that the truest line of dialog, clunky as it sounded at the time, to ever be put into a movie was in The Dark KnightYou either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.  And if my former life on twitter taught me anything, it's that the next generation of people who were not there at the time are going to come along and not understand the world or context into which a film was delivered.  That's not their fault, but to assume that something like The Royal Tenenbaums arrives into theaters and now Wes Anderson is considered a faultless filmmaker who will enjoy a career of deeply specific filmmaking and be dubbed a key filmmaker was not a guarantee.  

Even then not everyone loved Anderson's mannered, structured take that drew attention to the film as a film, as a chaptered storybook.  And that's fine.  Not everything is to everyone's taste.  

Re-watching the film, it strikes me how much the film does a thing I processed a bit at the time and which feels even more present now:  showed a vision of a Generation (X) that had grown up in the shadow of giants of the American century.  In some ways 2001 was the demarcation point of the old guard and that we didn't really know what the next phase would be.  The house is a time capsule, existing in the wake of 1960's and 70's, the golden period of the Glass children - when they were famed child prodigies and the subject of their mother's book and intense media coverage.  Fashion is all over the place, pulling from the 60's and 70's, the music is Velvet Underground and VU-adjacent.  The feel of the books the movie references, shows, etc... are the 1960's and 70's books we saw in libraries and our parents shelves.  Ritchie travels by ship.  It's a timeless, post WWII look and feel, and could be a period piece, I guess.  

The movie clearly lifts from JD Salinger's books and stories about the Glass family, something self-respecting Gen-X'ers read whether they liked these books or not.*  But it's also an entirely different concept - there's no one remotely like Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) in the books, and while it's been 30 years since I read much Salinger, I don't recall any books about all the Glass family coming back together.  This is cuter and fuzzier, the nihilism toned down.  And that's okay.  There's liberty in being an homage and your own thing.

In the end, the story is about Royal's return to the family (due to extenuating financial circumstances) and how that return and the children coming back under their childhood roof helps push the now adult children back in the right direction (spoilers).  It's some curiously adult stuff for a movie that feels like it could be taken as a novelty comedy.  What seem like disparate paths for much of the film are pulled together by the ne'er-do-well father - and despite what the movie says til the last minutes, he does actually make good, in his way.  

In a career of phenomenal performances, it's the one I think of as Hackman's best.  The character seems utterly unlike Hackman as I'd seen him in other roles (well, his Lex Luthor has some echoes) and certainly in interviews, there's no hint of Royal.  Famously, he didn't like the role or the production. I've no idea what he thought of the final product.  I doubt he watched it.

Which may be the most Royal Tenenbaum thing possible.

Anyway - it was a pleasure to rewatch the film.  I don't really have comfort films, but I have films I'm in the mood for at any given time, and in the wake of our weather last week and some internal and external factors being kicked around, this was the movie that jumped out at me on Saturday.  I'm glad it did.  It's been years since I'd seen it, and when I saw it the first time I was seven or so years younger than the children.  I'm now at least fifteen years older than those same characters, and the quirks and edges now feel like... how you wind up viewing the people you know.  A series of issues, and the ones you decide to spend time with in your shared dysfunction.  

*It's unclear to me if The Kids canceled Salinger or if he's still a favorite of sulky teens.  

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