O Tenenbaum!
By Jonathan Kiefer


I can't wait for The Royal Tenenbaums. It'll be my Christmas present to myself. And to anyone else who wants to come. I haven't looked forward to a movie this much in a long time. That's because I think Wes Anderson is America's most important filmmaker. Even if you haven't seen his earlier work, you've probably read about him, encountered phrases like, "with only two films" and "at the young age of" and "unique vision" and even the dreaded "much-anticipated." That might sound like a lot of insufferable public relations nonsense, but I promise it isn't. I'll take you to The Royal Tenenbaums, and you'll see what I mean.

Wes Anderson and Gene Hackman
Or perhaps you have seen Anderson's earlier works, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, and you're already as excited as I am for his next one. You know what to expect, which includes not knowing what to expect, but being convinced you'll like it whatever it is. Knowing it will lift your spirit. Maybe you'd been thinking, Gosh, what's left for American directors, anyway? We've already gone through all the anti-heroes and the slackers, the nebbishes and the mobsters. So the special effects are better, but what about the characters? And where can we really go from here? Maybe you'd been feeling exhausted. And along came Wes Anderson to somehow make you feel exhilarated. You were encouraged, for once, not depressed. You thought: All right, now here's something. Maybe you even thought: Hey, I should make a movie. Or at least: I wonder if mom threw out those cartoon flip books and that trunk full of Legos and those marionettes I made when I was twelve. I might be able to do something with those after all.

Well, me too. And that's part of what makes Wes Anderson America's most important filmmaker. He has given us what we really needed, which is a potent compound of inspiration and hope, a vitality that relies on childlike wonder but demands the full range of adult emotion. And he's done it in a ticklishly subversive way: he has developed, and refined, the anti-antihero, the indefatigable underachiever, and has secured for them a formerly unavailable audience. Of course it's not as heady and meta-theoretical as all that, thankfully. Anderson hasn't strained for auteur authenticity, but he's found it anyway. His films have clear, true voices; they are very funny and deeply humane.

Luke and Owen Wilson in Bottle Rocket
Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore

Bottle Rocket and Rushmore both tell stories of adorable, fresh-faced souls who dress themselves in personal ambitions that are way too big for them, but look rather stylish nonetheless. Their battles are always uphill but by no means Sisyphean. Anderson's heroes never admit defeat. They are not deluded, but merely imaginative.

After a voluntary hospitalization for debilitating ennui, Anthony teams up with Dignan (brothers Luke and Owen Wilson, respectively) for a collaborated stealing spree in Bottle Rocket. In tattered spiral notebooks and Crayola markers, Dignan has planned the next half-century of their criminal life-work. But he lacks the life experience to properly realize the plan.

"Say what you will about him," Anthony offers, "he's no cynic, and he's no quitter." This manifest truth is exactly what makes the film so endearing and hilarious, and it could well be the Wes Anderson mission statement. When Dignan asks, "Well, does the fact that I'm trying to do it do it for you?" I for one want to tell him yes. After his graceless coup de grace, a farcically bungled safe-crack-heist in the assistant state meat inspector's office at Hinckley Cold Storage, Dignan takes the fall for his gang and goes to prison, where he makes them a set of belt buckles. "I don't have any hard feelings!" he chirps. Owen Wilson, of course, is Anderson's co-writer, and his performance as Dignan might still be the best of his career. But I will have to see The Royal Tenenbaums to decide.

I often wonder what things were like for Wes and Owen in college, at that enormous University of Texas (where, delightfully, they were not film majors). I imagine a platonic sort of creative courtship, in which they found solace in a mutual affinity for some version of the melancholic-comic outlook purified by Charles Schultz (As in Peanuts, parents remain perpetually offstage in Bottle Rocket, leaving the children, of various ages, to self-direct their existential development. Anthony, for one, tries not to be complicated.) I imagine expansive and surprisingly interesting conversations that begin with, "Hey, you know what we should do?" I imagine them sitting in front of the tube on some beat-up couch in the apartment they shared, watching a movie—perhaps, oh, I don't know, The French Connection—and telling each other, "Maybe you'll work with Gene Hackman someday." Now, which would have seemed more far-fetched, The Royal Tenenbaums or Behind Enemy Lines?

I'm guessing neither, really. These two don't seem to censor their imaginations. These are anything-is-possible guys. You see that in Bottle Rocket, and you see it again in Rushmore. Here dwells Max Fischer, a prep-school tenth grader so overextended with passionately conceived extracurricular activities that he risks flunking out of the very place that inspires him. Max is some distant relative of Walter Mitty and Huck Finn and an inversion of Benjamin Braddock, yet none of the above; he really belongs to his portrayer, Jason Schwartzman, who has one of the best instincts for honest, deadpan humor since, well, Bill Murray, his Rushmore co-star. When Murray's Mr. Blume asks, "What's the secret, Max?" I cherish the both of them: Blume for asking what I want to know, and Max for really seeming to have the answer. Of equal validity, though, is Max's father's suggestion: "You're like one of those clipper ship captains. You're married to the sea." And Max's forlorn answer: "Yes, that's true. But I've been out to sea for a long time." All of this is what I mean by important and American.

After a feud with Blume for the affections of a first-grade teacher, Miss Cross (played with exquisite control by the radiant Olivia Williams, who is not American, but no matter), Max finally does get expelled from Rushmore. And he does not win the feud. In fact, he loses almost everything, but still finds the inner resources to relish an immortal line: "You think I got kicked out for just the Aquarium? Nah, it was the hand job. And you wanna know something else? It was worth it."

Max introduces himself to his disinterested classmates at the shabby, and very public, Grover Cleveland High School with a short speech. "One footnote," he says in conclusion. "I noticed you don't have a fencing team. Well I'm going to try my hardest to start one up for you guys." As three different characters put it, Max "is really making a go of it over there at Grover Cleveland." Good for him, and for all of us.

Like many people, I saw Rushmore first. It had better distribution. Actually, I saw the Rushmore trailer first. After which, I thought: "What the hell was that?" The answer, of course, is a trailer for a movie that can not be reduced to a trailer—a movie about which the marketing schlubs must have thought, "What the hell was that?" And from my experience, films that befuddle the marketing schlubs often turn out to be very special. Max Fischer would probably agree.

Then, much later, a friend showed me Bottle Rocket, because friends don't let friends go too long without full exposure to the Wes Anderson canon. I was smitten, of course. After it ended and we settled down, my friend said, "His next one is about a family of geniuses." Together we erupted into loud, conspiratorial, expectant laughter.

But what, you ask, if The Royal Tenenbaums sucks? Impossible. Yes, this is an age of hype and high expectations and low disappointments, and according to the way these things typically work, something's got to give. You could reasonably call Anderson's first two films "small." But The Royal Tenenbaums has Bill Murray and Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston and Danny Glover and Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Stiller (and, of course, the wonderful Wilsons); it cost more than twice as much as Rushmore to make. It's officially "big." I recall that you've been reading a lot about much-anticipated this and golden-boy that. You might even know that when Martin Scorsese was asked who would be the next Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson was his answer. So you're worried.

But Wes Anderson is not the next anybody. He's the first Wes Anderson, and the only one. Moreover, he has already earned the privilege to make a failure, to waste 90 to 120 minutes of my time. But I know he won't. He's too courteous to his audience, and too economical. He trusts his voice and so do I.

And besides, if his first two movies remind me of anything, it's that failure builds character. Now that's an American tune I can whistle.

I've been reading about The Royal Tenenbaums but trying not to read too much. I found a review by A.O. Scott in the New York Times, which ended like this: ''The Royal Tenenbaums finally elicits an exasperated admiration. Yes, yes, you're charming, you're brilliant. Now say good night and go to bed." Well, jeez, A. O. I'd hate to have you for a parent. I mean, if someone said that to me, I'd respond, with some flourish, of course: Fine. I'll go to bed, then. You and your sodden, elbow-patched friends can stay up and recede further into your single-malt-soaked solipsism, or complain about The Culture, or do your little outdated Edward Albee thing or whatever it is that you do, and I, your under-nurtured child, will retire to my room, to further my plans, to crack the spines of great novels—perhaps even to read them (with minimal understanding, granted, but not without curiosity. Maybe I'll even try some illustrations). I'll just gather my dioramas and paraffin lamps and modeling clay, my scissors and nibs, and get out of your way. There's too much stuff to carry; I'll have to make two trips, but I'll be quick about it. I was just trying to create something here, to entertain, to—but enough! Goodnight to you. Good riddance, adieu.

See, if those brave Anderson-Wilson heroes deserve anything, it's a safe place to work on their projects. They deserve the richly textured worlds that the director has created for them. Worlds in which resources are finite, but possibilities aren't; in which everyone must go it alone, but still find someone to rely on; in which relationships endure bleak winters, but always seem to blossom again; in which passions isolate people, but loyalty unifies them, and reconciliation works, usually because someone has the courage to ask, "Wanna shake hands?" These people deserve to have their adventures, and to have them scored by Mark Mothersbaugh's glancing, fairy-tale music or the counterpoint of catchy, high-energy British Invasion songs. And they deserve to know that it's worth it to simply keep trying. We deserve that too, and I'll bet anything that The Royal Tenenbaums will provide it. It should make a fine gift this holiday season.