THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS directed by Wes Anderson (USA, 2001)

royal-tenenbaums“She knows there’s no success like failure. And that failure’s no success at all” – Less Than Zero

Bob Dylan’s lines are apt for this movie even though this particular song is not on the  soundtrack. There are plenty of other cool tunes, though, including another by Dylan (Wigwam).

I always like directors who use contemporary music to establish moods and characters rather than as some fancy sonic wallpaper.

Mark ‘Devo’ Mothersbaugh wrote the original score and Wes Anderson is ,like Jim Jarmusch. David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Darren Aronofsky, a filmmaker with an ear for songs which create just the right atmosphere.

In The Royal Tenenbaums, for instance, the morbidly secretive Margot is defined by Nico’s sublime covers of Jackson Browne’s These Days and The Fairest Of The Seasons. The first of these begins with the lines “I’ve been out walking, I don’t do that much talking these days”.

For the scene of Ritchie’s suicide attempt you hear Elliot Smith’s Needle In The Hay a spooky choice given that Smith died of knife wounds, probably self-inflicted, less than two years after the film was made.

Best of all, a private detective’s report into the love life of Margot is presented in a series of tableaux from her past life and loves to the tune of The Ramones’ Judy Is A Punk.

John Lennon, The Clash, The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Nick Drake and Van Morrison are among the other artists used.

Owen Wilson & Wes Anderson

The story, written by Anderson and Owen Wilson. affects to be an adaptation of a novel by the use of chapter headings but is actually an original screenplay.

Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson) and the adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) are child prodigies in the fields of finance, tennis and theatre respectively. By the time they hit their teens, much of this early promise has stalled and they each have their own reasons to feel depressed.

The break up of their parents’ marriage is one of the sources of their pain. The part of the errant father, Royal, was written especially for Gene Hackman.

“I think we’re just gonna have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that, Ritchie.”

This is a film in which the plot is driven by the characters rather than vice versa. Royal is a lawyer and , as so often is the case with this profession, he is also an habitual liar. When he finds himself broke he blags his way back into the family fold by pretending to be dying of cancer. When the scam is exposed, he offers “I do have high blood pressure” as if this might garner the same level of sympathy.

His wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) , an archaeologist who finds love with her accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). is the rock that ensures the family doesn’t entirely implode.

Notable non-Tenenbaums in this stellar cast include Margot’s neurologist husband Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) and Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) an adventurer and writer of westerns.

I enjoyed seeing Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in roles that require them to act rather than to react to a succession of sight gags. Gwyneth Paltrow, not one of my favourite actresses, is also impressive in her downbeat role.

It’s never laugh out loud funny but is the kind of absurdist comedy you could imagine Robert Altman making. Anderson just about manages to keep a lot of plates spinning to avoid the whole thing descending to the level of trite farce.

I guess if there’s a message to draw from the movie it is that even the most dysfunctional family can be made to function if the spirit is willing and the flesh is not too weak.

Gif courtesy of If We Don’t, Remember Me Tumblr