The Royal Tenenbaums cordially request the pleasure of our company. The table is set in exquisite art deco china. The candles are lit. More than a mere title shot, this is the cover art of what may be a new cinematic invention: Writer-director Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore) has created a hypertextual book-on-film rooted in the literature of the New Yorker magazine about a family of geniuses and prodigies and those who desperately want to belong with them.
Anderson has read the New Yorker since his boyhood (he keeps every issue of the last 40 years in his office) and he’s digested the offerings of famous, if not legendary, contributing writers such as J.D. Salinger, S.N. Behrman, John O’Hara, Joseph Mitchell, James Thurber and E.B. White.
The three Tenenbaum children, with their motley talents, faults and tragedies, comically caricature Salinger’s much larger Glass family. They share the same mix of Irish (“Mick Catholic,” as Gene Hackman’s eponymous absentee father Royal Tenenbaum puts it with his natural crudeness) and Jewish bloodlines. Like their mother, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), an urban archaeologist, they belong within Behrman’s inner circle of Manhattan’s higher class and intellects.
But then there’s Royal, a lighter, more sweetly comic descendant of cads like O’Hara’s Pal Joey. He’s a shyster wrapped in expensive suits and smooth talk that Etheline and youngest son Richie (Luke Wilson, Legally Blonde), a former tennis prodigy, can’t help but believe. Royal is living proof of the Thurber aphorism: “You can fool too many of the people too much of the time.” He reunites with his wife and children out of necessity and by trickery. But the moral of this fable is what it will take to allow him to return not only to his former home, but into his estranged family’s hearts.
Anderson and his writing partner Owen Wilson (Luke’s brother, who also plays the role of Richie’s friend from childhood, Eli Cash) are true storytellers who pepper the chapters of their fiction with the odd-enough-to-be-true details that give Mitchell’s nonfiction its piquancy. Illustrated in the elegant modern art of Anderson’s vision, The Royal Tenenbaums carries the fairy tale heroism and salvation of White’s and the ironic innocence of Thurber’s children’s stories.
From the truly human performances of each featured actor — Gwyneth Paltrow’s heartbreaking playwright Margot, her psychiatrist husband Bill Murray’s delightfully understated Raleigh St. Clair, and Etheline’s sincere suitor and accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) — to Mark Mothersbaugh’s sound track, David Wasco’s production design and Karen Patch’s costume design (all three Anderson stalwarts since Bottle Rocket), each and every element is integral to the story.
The Royal Tenenbaums is Anderson’s crowning achievement.