Festival Notes, Review

A Not-So-Royal Family: Everyone’s Favorite Dysfunctional Family Celebrates its 10th Anniversary at NYFF49

For my Film Theory class this past semester, we were required to see a film at the 49th New York Film Festival and review it―you can only guess how excited I was at this assignment.  I had originally planned on seeing Martha Marcy May Marlene, but due to rapid word-of-mouth about Elizabeth Olsen’s performance, tickets were hard to get.  I eventually was able to see a film―a special 10th Anniversary screening of The Royal Tenenbaums, with a special introduction by Wes Anderson himself, as well as a Q&A session with members of the cast (Gwyneth Paltrow, Anjelica Huston, and Bill Murray were in attendance) and crew (director Anderson and his brother, who did many of the illustrations seen in the film, as well as many of his other ones).

The following review/analysis is the paper that resulted from that night, which definitely goes down as one of the most memorable experiences of my life.  Hope you enjoy it, and if you were in town and caught a film at NYFF49, please feel free to tell me about your experience in the comments, too!  

“How old do you think those are?”

“I’d say about 10 years.”

Hearing these words at the New York Film Festival‘s screening of Wes Anderson’s modern classic The Royal Tenenbaums (on October 13th), struck a different chord this time around.  The cult favorite, which originally debuted at the festival ten years ago, marked this milestone with a special screening at the place where it all began.  The night started out interestingly enough, with yours truly chancing on a single ticket entry in a line filled with either couples or groups.  I couldn’t quite believe my chances — so much so that even after I’d paid the NYFF usher, I froze in place, not knowing what to do (even though the most logical thing to do was to, well, go in).  The couple in front of me was encouraging enough: “You got into the party―get in there, girl!”

And oh, what a party it was.

Once the Alice Tully Hall auditorium was filled to capacity, the “party” started with the introduction of someone named Ally Tenenbaum, dressed―interestingly enough―very similarly to Ari and Uzi Tenenbaum, complete with curly-top hair and a red Adidas jumpsuit (move over, Sue Sylvester).  As a kind of self-professed “lost” Tenenbaum, Ally recounted how the family that “put the ‘fun’ in ‘dysfunctional'” affected her life; which, as she tells it, mostly involved people asking if Anjelica Huston was her mother.  She then brought Anderson on to the stage, who said a few things about the film’s history with the festival before the house lights finally dimmed and it was showtime.

Wes Anderson’s opus, narrated by a gruff-voiced Alec Baldwin, focuses on three scions of renowned litigator, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and archaeologist Etheline (Huston), and the lives they lead in a fantasy New York City in the early 2000s.  It starts off with a cold open, as Baldwin’s narration chronicles the early years of the Tenenbaum children, who are widely thought to be geniuses from a young age: there’s financial whiz Chaz (Ben Stiller); tennis champ and dabbling artist Richie (Luke Wilson); and Fulbright Scholar and budding playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow).  Rounding out the ensemble are: Owen Wilson, as Richie’s childhood best friend, Margot’s part-time paramour, and aspiring historical novelist Eli Cash; Bill Murray as Margot’s husband, psychologist Raleigh St. Clair; Danny Glover as Etheline’s accountant and bumbling new love interest Howard Sherman; and Kumar Pallana as house servant and Royal’s reluctant partner-in-crime, Pagoda. 

As the opening credits fade (to a cover of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” by Mutato Muzika Orchestra, no less), we jump ahead to the present-day, where we now find the formerly accomplished Tenenbaums living separate lives, all of whom have not seen nearly the same amount of success as they had as children.  When Royal, whom upon his separation with Etheline went to live at a hotel, finds out he is bankrupt and on the verge of being evicted, he decides to turn up at his old homestead.  However, once Pagoda informs him of Howard’s intentions of marrying Etheline, things really start to get rolling when Royal plots to come back to his family with news that he has contracted a terminal illness.  As soon as each of the three Tenenbaum children gets wind of this, they―one-by-one―find themselves thrown back together and living in the same house again after seven years of not speaking.

Throughout the film, the theme of the family reliving the past and being stuck in the glory of their heyday pervades.  From a visual perspective, Anderson seems to intentionally―and successfully―weave this particular theme in everything from the usage of the Helvetica font in the credits to the actor’s costumes, to the color palette of the film itself.  Many of the characters, as adults, still wear the same clothes: Chaz, with his tracksuit; Richie, with his Izod shirts and sweatbands; Margot with her Izod dresses and signature fur coat.  The theme of the past also plays out through the songs chosen for the score, all of which are from the 1970s; some examples include Nico’s “These Days,” The Ramones’ “Judy is a Punk,” and the Peanuts’ “Christmastime is Here” as Margot’s theme.  (Indeed, even the choice of Ari and Uzi’s dog, Buckley, as a beagle is Anderson’s self-professed tribute to Snoopy.) Anderson himself has stated that much of his inspiration stemmed from his own experiences growing up in the 1970s, and this is evident in the various references he makes, such as in the case of E.L. Konigsburg’s popular novel, The Mixed-Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler, wherein two children run away to live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  (In the film, Richie and Margot spend the night camp out at the National Archives.)  Nico also influenced the styling of Margot’s character — her dark eyeliner, as well as the fact that her hair matched her fur coat, was taken from the German Velvet Underground singer’s look.  

I have to admit, I did not see the film until earlier this year (I know: shock!), so this was the first time I’ve ever experienced seeing Tenenbaums on a big screen and with an audience.  Having never seen any of Anderson’s works beforehand, I can only provide other films I’ve seen, which fall into the same genre, as a basis for comparison.  Upon initial viewing, the offbeat vibe immediately called to mind films like I Huckabees, especially with the whole ’70s look and feel.  The Tenenbaums universe takes place, as previously mentioned, in a fictitious New York City where privileged families, such as the eponymous ones in the film, take gypsy cabs and addresses like “100 N. 30th Avenue” exist (which, of course, they don’t).  The usage of Green Line buses, which are no longer in use today, are in keeping with the theme.    

Tonally speaking, Anderson’s film has a dark comedy feel about it and this is also heavily evident in the writing.  Baldwin’s omniscient narration also lends itself a morose overtone, which sets off quite nicely against all the quirky humor laden throughout.  Much of the dialogue is humorous without being overly obvious, and this is successfully pulled off with the cast’s often deadpan delivery.  Indeed, both films are peppered with witty one-liners which require careful listening in order to truly be appreciated.  I was glad that everyone seemed to laugh at all the right parts, especially on the lines I found particularly funny, but personally had felt went over a lot of people’s heads most of the time. For instance, the part when Eli is reading an excerpt from his book out loud, some lines of which are hilarious, there is a part shortly afterward when he says, “Well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn.  What this book presupposes is…maybe he didn’t?”  Another part I love that received a big laugh is Young Chaz’s line at Margot’s birthday party early on in the film, referring to a play in which the children played wild animals: “Did you at least think the characters were well developed?”  As a theatre lover, it remains among my favorite lines, mainly because of the serious manner in which Aram Aslanian-Persico had delivered it.

The similarities between the two films don’t stop there.  By story’s end, all the different characters — each with their own unique set of idiosyncracies―find themselves coming together in a mishmash of events which finally culminate in a “happy” ending.  Resolutions are made, and ends are tied.  In Tenenbaums, during Howard and Etheline’s nuptuals, Eli―after having been confronted by Richie and Royal about his drug addiction — decides to crash the party, which leads to a car crash and a subsequent chase scene between he and Chaz.  In Huckabees, the now-shunned Albert Markovsky (played by Jason Schwartzman, who also previously starred in another Anderson classic, Rushmore) has a confrontation of his own with Jude Law’s Brad Stand, who had taken over his Open Spaces Coalition, which then ends with a silly fight in an elevator.  The ridiculousness of both of the climaxes of these films seems to only further add to the humor that is key to the indie dark comedy genre.  

After the film, the whole theatre erupted with applause and was met with Anderson and some of the original cast taking their bows in the top right balcony.  Shortly thereafter, a Q&A session followed, with two representatives of the NYFF moderating, if a little bit awkwardly so.  Anderson himself seemed quite perturbed at some of the questions asked, some of which were admittedly ridiculous (one choice question: “You seem to do a lot of the last scenes in your film in slow motion.”  Anderson: “Yeah.  What are you asking, exactly?”).  Much of the comic relief that helped to dissipate the awkward tension was due, of course, to Murray, who kept up a running joke about Hackman being hard to work with (“He’s weak, he’s just weak.”).  Huston and Paltrow, who were also in attendance along with Anderson’s brother (who does much of the artwork seen in his films), also provided some interesting stories from the set.  While I wish better questions had been asked, therefore culling more insight from the actors and directors, it was still clear that everyone had a great time making the movie.

Well, maybe except Gene Hackman.

  All images courtesy of themoviedb.org


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