O Tenenbaums, O Tenenbaums
It's been just a couple weeks since the 10th anniversary of the 2001 release of The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson's quirky-but-true depiction of family life. A dysfunctional family, perhaps, but then, aren't we all?
If Romans 1 teaches us anything, it's that we've all got a bit of knowledge in us somewhere. Knowledge of a God who saves, knowledge of a stain on the human soul. To be human is to know that one's greatest problem is self-absorption. The immediate effect: separation. The long-term catastrophe: death. The other side of the coin says that the greatest longing of the human heart is to be redeemed, to be made acceptable, to be loved beyond degree.
When The Royal Tenenbaums released, some proclaimed it to be pretentious, overly involved and woefully unnecessary while others applauded the cinematography, gorgeous shot composition and riffs on the key of family dysfunction. So don't bite the critics' forbidden fruit just yet. A decade later, let's take a moment to observe the echoes of Eden and glimpses of redemption this film brings to the table.
As the movie begins, we see director Anderson's ideal of an untainted creation: three whiz kids surrounded by a stylized Manhattan. This is New York as dreamt up by a bookish 15-year-old who has fallen asleep with Salinger in his lap. Green Line Buses and Gypsy Cabs flitting through the streets. Everyone is a cosmopolitan: symmetrically coiffed and impeccably dressed, intellectually astute and financially secure. In the Andersonian world, life is best perceived on the rooftops of high-rises.
There's Margot, the award-winning playwright; Chas, who can crunch numbers and predict financial trends with stunning accuracy; and Richie the "Baumer," a tennis prodigy with the sweetest spirit of them all. Anderson's snapshot of Eden, his take on untainted perfection, is composed of pre-adolescent wizardry. They are creators, innovators, champions of the world. The only thing standing in their way is a father who certainly must have an autographed copy of How to Ruin Your Children's Lives Without Even Trying politely resting on his bedside table.
Royal Tenenbaum—played by Gene Hackman—is never painted as a monster. He's witty, endearing and likable from the start. He still gets laughs when he shoots Chas dead-on with a BB gun after asking him to hold still, or even when he insists that Margot is his adopted daughter at every available occasion. He takes Richie to dogfights without a thought toward his other children. The BB that lodges itself in Chas's hand stays there to adulthood. In fact, all three children spend their lives nursing wounds that cannot be undone. Royal's constant infidelity leaves genius in ruins, angels robbed of innovative innocence. We are soiled and bent just as much by the sinfulness of others as by our own selfishness. And the closer the offending sinner is to home, the deeper the wound.
The wages of sin
As Royal returns home to fake a terminal illness, the viewer gets a chance to see the wages of sin cashed in on the silver screen. His children wear the same clothes they sported in their youth. Parental self-obsession bends its victims into a permanent state of childhood, minus the innocence.
The Reformers told us that the vice behind all vices was to be curved in on oneself, bringing about unmatched separation. Divorce is the bass note resonating under this symphony. It's the heartbreaking theme of parent-child alienation that's playing as a soloist throughout. Christ shows us God as a Father, giving flight to sparrows and ornamenting lilies. Richie's pet hawk, Mordecai, is released to fly about New York at the film's beginning. It mirrors the deepest unmet wish of these three kids: a caretaker who would nurture them until they were ready to be set free. But the nurturer was never there. They are all still caged, all still imprisoned in their father's folly.