Before the feature presentation, I went with a Mystery Science Theater 3000 short (you might get the impression that I like MST3K!) that had basically nothing to do with the movie and everything to do with telephones from the future (complete with a pager the size of a cribbage board). You can watch it here, of course:
For the feature presentation I selected one of my favorite all-time films, and somewhat surprisingly the first film by Wes Anderson shown at Cinema 1544 – The Royal Tenenbaums. Tenenbaums is a film about a selfish former head-of-household who schemes to take advantage of his family and somehow ends up being the catalyst of redemption and healing. If that’s the kind of storyline that speaks to you, and you like Wes Anderson’s quirks, then you can’t fail to love this film.
The film starts out in the past, describing the remarkable rise of Tenenbaum family and their three child prodigies.
Chas was a business and scientific genius (he created a race of dalmatian mice for no apparent reason) who took his meals standing up at his desk to save time.
Richie was a junior tennis champion (and undeveloped painter) and his father’s favorite.
And Margot was an award-winning playwright who nonetheless was infallibly introduced by her father as “my adopted daughter”, which can’t possibly be scarring at all.
The paterfamilias here is Royal Tenenbaum, a lawyer and all-around scumbag who separates from his wife Etheline when the children are in their early teens. From this point forward, things begin to go downhill.
Chas’s relationship with his father, already strained due to the Richie favoritism is basically destroyed when he sues his father (and has him disbarred) for laundering money from him.
Margot and Richie are remarkably close, once running away and living an entire summer in a museum. She later runs off to find her real family and returns minus a ring finger, the result of a woodchopping axe-ident. Always a bit unpredictable and flighty and secretive, she goes through a series of clandestine relationships before marrying the much older neurologist Raleigh St. Clair.
On the day of Margot’s wedding, Richie “Baumer” Tenenbaum has a breakdown on the court (“I don’t know, Jim. There’s obviously something wrong with him. He’s taken off his shoes and one of his socks and… actually, I think he’s crying.”) and suddenly retires from tennis.
Years later after they have gone their separate ways, forces begin to bring them all back together again.
Richie, idling around the world on a tramp steamer, declares his love for Margot in a letter to his childhood friend Eli Cash,
while the increasingly-sullen Margot, no longer writing, leaves a loveless relationship with Raleigh and moves back home, secretly a smoker and secretly banging Eli Cash.
At the same time Chas, failing to recover from his wife’s death in an airplane crash the year before, moves back home with his sons Ari and Uzi, claiming that his own apartment is unsafe,
and Etheline, now an archaeologist, has after two decades of celibacy following Royal’s departure accepted a marriage proposal from her long-time accountant Henry Sherman.
It is among this set of developments (dutifully reported by the Tenenbaum butler and Royal’s loyal shiv-happy sherpa Pagoda) that Royal finds himself as he is finally kicked out of his long-term hotel room for not paying his bills. So he hatches a plan to get his family back and more importantly a place to live that’s not the local Y…
…he fakes having terminal stomach cancer with the help of a fake doctor, played by his friend the elevator operator. Etheline takes him in and calls Richie home, now having the entire family under one roof at the same time. It’s not all roses. Royal sets about trying to sabotage Henry and Etheline’s impending marriage, Chas spends his time resenting his father, and Richie gets involved with Raleigh St. Clair’s private investigations when he learns that Margot may be having an affair.
Royal’s tenure in his old home doesn’t last long, as Henry uncovers Royal’s fraud and he is unceremoniously booted from the house, finally realizing that the time he has been spending with his family are the best days in his life. He begins to turn things around.
He secretly starts to rebuild his relationship with Ari and Uzi, getting them out from under the over-protective thumb of their father. He gets a job as an elevator operator in his old hotel. And he keeps trying to do the right thing, despite being persona non grata, even at the hospital.
Yes, the hospital…after the P.I.’s report comes back on Margot (an endless string of flings and infidelities) Richie takes the destruction of Margot’s reputation very badly, shaves his beard and head, and slits his wrists. He lives, as you would expect in a Wes Anderson film, and it sets up one of my favorite scenes ever.
Richie checks himself out of the hospital and Margot finds him at home in the tent he began staying in when Royal was “in hospice” in Richie’s room. Wes Anderson’s brilliance partly comes from the ability to create ridiculous situations that seem perfectly plausible in context, but part of it comes from his knack for writing ultra-realistic, unpretentious dialogue that conveys the humanity of the situation so poignantly. Thus: “Why’d you do it? Because of me?” “Yeah, but it’s not your fault.” “You’re not going to do it again, are you?” “I doubt it.” They kiss, but Margot gets up and leaves the tent. “I think we’re just gonna to have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that, Richie.”
Royal stays busy, trying to patch things up with both Margot and Richie, intervening with Eli in an attempt to get him into rehab for his drug addictions, and realizing that he can’t possibly win back Etheline he grants her a divorce so that she can marry Henry. Finally, the day of the wedding arrives – to occur at the Tenenbaum house – and remarkably Royal is invited.
So is Eli Cash, and is it really his fault that the invitation didn’t explicitly say “please do not show up on mescaline”?
Royal snatches Ari and Uzi out of the way of Eli’s inevitable crash, saving them, and Chas finally is able to drop his wall: “I’ve had a rough year, Dad.” “I know you have, Chassie.”
The wedding eventually happens, Margot begins writing again, Richie opens a junior tennis program, and when shortly thereafter Royal Tenenbaum suffers a fatal heart attack, the only witness to his death is his reconciled son Chas. The narrator tells us that “no one spoke at the funeral … but it was agreed among them that Royal would have found the event to be most satisfactory.”