Every time I watch “The Royal Tenenbaums,” I’m reminded of an aspiring filmmaker friend from college who I’ve fallen out of touch with during the past two decades, save a fleeting email exchange a couple years ago. He shared Wes Anderson’s sensibilities, so during the years when I was wondering what happened to him, I imagined that Anderson’s career could have been his. Alas, when I finally made contact, we shared a couple terse emails in which he made it clear that life had not gone the way he had hoped; he was another victim of Hollywood’s siren song, lying ashore on the rocks, broken.
I bring him up because not only did he remind me of Anderson, but this film in particular has a laser focus on lives gone awry. All of the director’s movies dig deep into various states of failure, but “The Royal Tenenbaums” tunnels toward the core of that idea, discovering at its center a brilliant family sitting in the shadows of their former greatness. I’m sure Anderson encountered others like my college friend during his early career. For every spectacular success in this world, how many others of nearly equal talent end up falling short, if even by inches?
Of course, the reasons why a talented person falls short in life often harken back to the specific mixture of their personality and upbringing. Royal Tenenbaum’s shocking selfishness is certainly at the root of the Tenenbaum kids’ failures later in life, despite the spectacular success they achieved early on. After a lengthy introductory sequence that breaks many screenwriting rules but works anyway, Royal’s latest selfish scheme begins to unfold, bringing him, his children, and his ex-wife under one roof as they try to reconcile past wrongs.
Like Anderson’s next film, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” puts its characters through one awkward misfortune after another, culminating in a climax that wraps the narrative threads in a tidy package. Despite his characters’ many faults, and sometimes downright rotten natures, Anderson clearly has a fondness for them; he wants them to move past their failures and find some kind of peace, even someone as selfish as Royal, who treated his adopted daughter with outright disdain.
Anderson delves into his inspiration for the film in the commentary track on this Blu-ray disc, which was ported over from the original 2002 DVD Criterion DVD release, along with the rest of the bonus features. Early in the film, he talks about his parents’ divorce and how one of his brothers wanted him to address it in a movie. When he began writing Royal Tenenbaum’s dialogue, however, the character morphed into someone who wasn’t really his father, and the film flowed from there. The rest of the commentary track is a nice mix of story observations, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and “Here’s how we did that” kind of stuff.
Some of what Anderson discusses also appears in “With the Filmmaker,” which runs about 30 minutes and goes behind the scenes to show Anderson overseeing set construction, discussing his approach to filming certain scenes, and so forth. We also have another 30 minutes or so of interviews with the major cast members talking about how they got involved with the film and what they think about their characters and the story.
Anderson has a reputation as a bit of a trickster, which shows up in the next bonus feature, “The Peter Bradley Show.” It’s a Charlie Rose parody that appears briefly in the film, and here we get 30 minutes of Bradley interviewing minor cast members and crew. He mimics Rose’s mannerisms and conversational style, but unlike that venerable interviewer, he gets a lot of his facts wrong, he interrupts his subjects constantly, and he focuses on inconsequential subjects while ignoring more important ones. It’s amusing, but it’s probably twice as long as it needed to be; I got the idea after 10 or 15 minutes.
Finally, we have a pair of trailers and a video scrapbook that includes photos, storyboards, and other materials. The pamphlet that features an essay by film critic Kent Jones was also ported over from the original DVD release. A new insert features all of Eric Anderson’s drawings that detail the Tenenbaums’ world.