I expect many will dismiss Anderson's Magnus Opus as one of two things. `Quirky' or `insubstantial'. They are, in no uncertain terms, wrong. Yes the film is offbeat, innovative and original, quirky even, and yes the production design is near saturated with wondrous stylistic flourishes. But, crucially, this is not a case of style obscuring substance. This is style begetting substance. For every Dalmatian mouse, we get a fantastically realised character, for every kitsch tableau, we get a wonderful moment of human interaction. The Royal Tenenbaums is a movie steeped in acute, ingenious, absurd observation. It's a deceptively complicated fable of human loss, grief and redemption, played out with beguiling subtlety by its all star cast.
The screenplay (written by Anderson with long time collaborator Owen Wilson) somehow manages to give each character of the large ensemble cast immeasurable depth . It's a stunning achievement considering the relatively scant screen time each actor gets. When Royal (played by a twinkling Gene Hackman) confronts his estranged wife Ethel (Angelica Houston) , with the news of his imminent death it's a wonderful moment. With approximately eleven lines of dialogue, we are given an astonishing insight into the two characters. A lesser film would struggle to impart so much in its entire running time. Not only is this sequence informative, it is both moving and laugh out loud funny. It's a combination that the film pulls out of the bag often.
Thematically The Royal Tenenbaums is supercharged. The witty banter, and recognisably comic actors conceal very dark undercurrents. Divorce, suicide, drug abuse, incestuous relationships and death all are brought to the fore, thinly veiled by sparkling delivery and a rose tinted camera lens. Surprisingly amongst Stiller, Hackman, Murray and Glover it is actually Luke Wilson who emerges as the films star. It's perhaps his most impressive performance and suggests that he is capable of depths that his brother couldn't dream of. As tragic ex-tennis player Richie Tenenbaum he shoulders most of the film's heavy lifting. It is he who embodies the film's darker subtexts, yet he does so in a way that is entirely affable, warm and affecting. This approach is synonymous with the film as a whole, and those who accuse Anderson of producing a film altogether too cutesy have clearly just not paid enough attention. His amalgamation of offbeat design and darkly comic tragedy makes for a film that is both sparkling and effectively introspective.
Not only is The Royal Tenenbaums armed with an acute, deceptively profound script, and blessed with fantastic performances, it is graced with a soundtrack so perfect one is tempted to break down and weep. The Rolling Stones and The Beatles rub shoulders with Erik Satie and Elliott Smith, whilst The Ramones and The Clash do battle with Bob Dylan and Nick Drake. Like the film it's an eclectic mix, and its possibly the best soundtrack since Pulp Fiction. With so much going for it, it's hard to see how the haters could be so blind. There's not a character who's not endearing, there's not a line that's wasted. Suffused with delightful styling, impeccable comic timing and sumptuous melancholia, the film is wry, glowing, and finally, in its own very particular way, life affirming. See it, then see it again.