|'Anderson's tales, especially here in Tenenbaums, plumb deep corners of anxiety and upset and neuroticism, but they do so whilst convincing you that those things are not really of this world.'|
The long held belief by Wes Anderson detractors is that he is a prime example of a director who favours style over substance. Even for those who hold the director in high regard, it is easy to follow that logic. This is, after all, a man whose devotion to pastel shades and clothes would surely have had the potential to make Degas think about painting in neon.
The Royal Tenenbaums, newly released on a UK Criterion edition, is no exception. The performances are mannered; restrained even when they are being flamboyant. The clothes are largely pastel; or at least heavily ironic primary. The plot is interspersed with diversions towards what may be considered unnecessary whimsy; yes, this is a film featuring Dalmatian-spotted mice.
But Anderson's aesthetic choices, even his choices to include somewhat frivolous 'filler' around his core story, are deliberate and deliberately played with. They create a distance from his action that allows audiences to experience what are, frankly, sometimes horrifying narratives, without necessarily exposing themselves to the full threat of what happens. Anderson's tales, especially here in Tenenbaums, plumb deep corners of anxiety and upset and neuroticism, but they do so whilst convincing you that those things are not really of this world.
And so, here, we have a character, Chas (Ben Stiller, the only one of the ensemble who does not escape and rise above his former poor performances), so depressed by the death of his wife that he sleeps in the same room as his children, lest he should lose them too. We have Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), a character in what looks suspiciously like a near-arranged marriage, loveless, depressed and unable to work. We have Royal (Gene Hackman), a father so broke and so terrible that he's willing to fake his own terminal illness in order to get back in with his family. Just imagine what Ken Loach would do with that last one.
Yet, when you watch and think back to The Royal Tenenbaums, it is not an unhappy film. Like all of Anderson, it is smartly scripted, featuring a forked tongue when it needs it, good timing and great, playful, visual gags which often fulfil a story purpose as well as a humorous one; the final tracking shot, featuring Raleigh (Bill Murray) and a dog, and the detective on the roof are both cases in point.
Anderson's aesthetics, far from being style over substance, are the very thing that allow him to tell serious stories without bludgeoning his audience over the head with throes of social realism and depression-era levels of, well, depression.
There is though a problem with this approach. Tenenbaums, most watchers would admit, relies on the success or failure of a single scene involving Richie (Luke Wilson). It is the emotional apex of the film and; if you buy it and go with it, this is a five-star masterpiece for many.
That scene though is steeped still in the aesthetic distance of Anderson. For one, though we probably care more about Ritchie than for the rest of the family, do we care enough about him to make this scene hit? For another, the scene retains, despite the primary colours, a sense that it is happening in this minor bubble; this aesthete's dream of New York.
Anderson's aesthetic distance in The Royal Tenenbaums creates brilliance and inclusion; it welcomes you in, like a practised and familiar psychiatrist, ready to help you explore problematic areas of the psyche with relaxed genius. But it also prevents you, on occasion, from truly connecting with the moments that matter, the moments that could lift you, and the film, above the strengths that are already here.
The Royal Tenenbaums is released on Criterion UK on Monday 5th December 2016.