1.11.2017

From the archives: "Mad, brilliant genius"


There was a time—from roughly 2001 to 2005—when I was really getting something out of Wes Anderson; I was turned on by their whimsical tone and by the vibrant aesthetic of Anderson’s filmmaking.  I’ve since cooled to Anderson’s work considerably (though I do retain some affection for Rushmore, which is still one of his breeziest, most relaxed movies).  So it feels a bit weird to re-read my laudatory review of The Royal Tenenbaums, which I wrote in the winter of 2002.  I was heavily influenced by Pauline Kael at the time and that shows in the writing.  With its purple prose, mixed metaphors, and fuzzy logic (the movie is a Greek tragedy that’s really a comedy?) it reads like a fairly pathetic attempt to gush in the way that Kael gushed about the movies of the 1960s and ’70s that she loved.  What can I say?  I was seventeen.  Better is my appreciation of Anjelica Huston’s performance as the Tenenbaum family matriarch.

Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).

“The film is structured like a literary masterpiece.  The joke is that it feels based on a novel that’s not real—it even opens up at the beginning like a book, and scenes are divided into chapters like they were in Hannah and Her Sisters.  The opening sequence, which bombards us like a hail of bullets, is a blow to the face.  Anderson snakes and cuts backward and forward, filling us in on Richie’s nervous breakdown and Margot’s many loves (the funniest: an early marriage to a Jamaican folk singer).  There’s narration (by Alec Baldwin), a hilarious explanation for Margot’s missing finger, a surreal suicide that’s a bath of blood of hair.  It’s Tolstoy crossed with Salinger and a smidgen of Franzen’s Corrections […] The Royal Tenenbaums is Russian in its scope but with the edginess, the zany, otherworldly romanticism that could come only from Manhattan.  There are just enough characters—they all have their bits, we know them all, and Anderson juggles them masterfully.  At the end of the game he arranges them in perfect Shakespearean fashion, matching them off and marching them home, and by the final scene (which arrives just as we expect it and yet still manages to hook us) they’ve all gotten close to us.  Especially as it nears its finale, the film has the uncanny scope of a Greek tragedy that really isn’t tragic at all—it’s a fine human comedy with the usual frailty and melodrama exaggerated to the point of mad, brilliant genius. […]

Anjelica Huston with Danny Glover.

“As Etheline, Anjelica Huston is as magnetic and sensual as ever, hiding behind a scientist’s objectivity.  She examines everyone and everything as though it were a specimen speared at the end of a mounting pin, and she couldn’t be more attractive for it. […] Her hair has just the slightest tinge of frostiness to it, and with a pencil pinning it up, walking with her large shoulders fully broadened and speaking in that milky purr, she’s exactly feline, a panther.  Woody Allen mentioned her bigness, her sheer physical presence […] Just watching her move is breathtaking.”  

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