You know, “they” say a lot of things. “They” say Christmas is a time for family. The way I see it, if you have to run either of these psychic gauntlets, you might as well get them both out of the way at once. Otherwise Christmas is also a time for family films (and films about families). If you can’t laugh at your own pain, you should chuckle at someone else’s, and what better candidate than “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
Co-writer/director Wes Anderson and co-writer/co-star Owen Wilson, the team behind “Bottle Rocket” and Rushmore, have brewed up quite a cauldron of animosity in the Tenenbaum clan. The family had best been known for its three child geniuses: Financial wizard son, Chas (Ben Stiller); award-winning playwright and adopted daughter, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow); and tennis champion son, Richie (Luke Wilson). Primarily raised by their mother Etheline (Anjelica Huston), all three children achieved enormous success well before leaving their teens.
Unfortunately now all in their 30s, each is currently in various stages of meltdown. Each has failed to grow past certain events of their shared childhood, and soon finds themselves back living with their mother. To varying degrees, each blames their broken adulthood on their long estranged, stunningly self-absorbed father, Royal (Gene Hackman). Though he left his family before the children had reached adolescence, his selfishness and betrayals continued to drag them down for years.
Of course, “they” also say payback’s a bitch, and sometimes you can just feel the cruel hand of fate flipping you the bird of cosmic irony. Having long since been disbarred, it’s around this time that Royal finds himself broke and evicted. Having long since alienated his family, he attempts to get back into their good graces the only way he knows how: he lies out of his a*s and tells them that he’s dying in six weeks. Gee, schemes like this never seem to blow up in your face, do they? It’s around that point that both hilarity and poignancy truly ensue.
Okay, at this point I could start talking about typical film critic nonsense like helmer Anderson’s developing cool, unsentimental style. Sure, he comes across bolder and more confident, and he still hasn’t tired of his late-60s obsessions such as director Richard Lester and British Invasion music (hey, if Jay Roach ever tires of making the Austin Powers sequels…). Yeah, I could ramble on about that, except for one strange thing. You see, unlike my often- (and justly) maligned colleagues, I screened this film a week before flying to meet my estranged family following the recent near-death of my own father. Unlike in the movies, he’s not faking it. No one’s getting out of this year unscathed, huh?
What did I take away instead? Aside from a very funny and painfully relevant two hours of entertainment, there’s basically just one moral to this story, and that lesson would be, “Sometimes, it’s just not about YOU.” It doesn’t matter whether it’s Isræl and Palestine or a father and son. When you’re stuck together in a relationship, spite and anger will only consume all of your energy and time. Until both sides learn to move past their differences and give a little something to the other, you may never be able to grow as an individual. A war of attrition never really benefits anyone.
Will this lesson help me on the little journey of discovery I’m about to undertake? We’ll see. “They” also say it takes two to tango, so hopefully somebody wants to dance with me. If not, at least I’ve got the movies to cheer my a*s up.