Before I say anything else, understand that my mind is busily chewing over a fact that makes me very uncomfortable, namely, the near-uniform whiteness of Wes Anderson’s movies. I love Wes Anderson. I love his movies. But I do not love monochromatic casting. But in thinking on this quite a bit in the past few months, I’ve come to realize that it’s not that he doesn’t hire people of colour, it’s that he doesn’t hire African Americans, rather specifically. In fact, The Royal Tenenbaums may be the only time he’s every hired a black actor for a role of substance (Courtney B. Vance got to narrate Isle of Dogs), and it’s really only to service a racist character, ie, Danny Glover’s only there so that Gene Hackman can call him a long list of slurs. And though Wes Anderson’s worlds are so often populated by the same faces, Glover’s has never reappeared. Hiring someone just to be a target seems particularly cruel. However, Kumar Pallana, an Indian actor, had appeared in 4 of Anderson’s films (he died in 2013 – and was originally a barista in Anderson’s favourite Dallas coffee shop). Waris Ahluwalia, an Indian-born, American Sikh, has been in three. Tony Revolori, the terrific breakout bellboy from The Grand Budapest Hotel, is of Guatemalan descent, though so far he’s appeared in more Spider-man movies than he has in the Wes Anderson universe. There was a smattering of Japanese voice actors in Isle of Dogs, though surprisingly and relatively few considering the whole film takes place in Japan. This isn’t exactly an exhaustive list, but it’s as close as it is short, and between you and I, the minute you start putting together a list of non-white actors, you’ve already lost. That’s 9 terrific, talky, thinky, inventive pieces of cinema with incredible ensemble casts and insane attention to detail and just 1 solitary black man, necessary to the script to be the recipient of a grumpy old man’s careless racist remarks. It’s a terrible tally.
And it’s too bad that Anderson’s movies have this problem because otherwise they’d be 100% my jam.
The Tenenbaums are a fascinatingly dysfuntional family. Matriarch Etheline (Anjelica Huston) raised her 3 children to be exceptional after her lousy husband Royal (Gene Hackman) left. Chas Tenenbaum was a prodigy investor, successfully running businesses out of his childhood bedroom. Now he’s a recent widower and fresh trauma has him raising his own sons in a constant state of terror. Margot Tenenbaum was a prodigy playwright, earning prizes and praise as a child for her mature writing. Today she’s literally soaking in depression as her husband Raleigh (Bill Murray) knocks helplessly on the bathroom door. Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) was a tennis prodigy hopelessly in love with his sister, Margot. He had a career-ending meltdown when Margot married Raleigh, and he’s spent the time since sailing the world, keeping oceans between himself and his family. Eli (Owen Wilson) is the boy next door who grew up gazing upon the relative privilege of the Tenenbaum family, wishing to belong to them. And of course Henry Sherman (Glover) is Etheline’s new suitor and the family’s disruptor.
Broke, homeless, with hackles raised about the new man prowling about, Royal Tenenbaum decides to home after decades away. They won’t have him of course. He spent years disappointing his family before being completely estranged from them. So his only move is to fake cancer as a ploy to gain sympathy – and even that’s a tough sell. But it gets him back in the family home, and one by one the grown children all return to orbit around him. They’re all fucked up in their own ways, but they’ve also got an extremely fucked up dynamic together. They’re a bunch of fire starters just waiting for a match, and Royal is a goddamned flame thrower. Whoosh.
It’s a movie full of quirks that still manages to be cohesive and sell a cogent story about a family full of tragedies. Betrayal lurks in every closet, disaster through every doorway. And even though it contains perhaps Anderson’s bleakest scene ever (set to Elliott Smith’s Needle in the Hay), it’s not all doom and gloom. There are plenty of laughs, but also some actual heartfelt moments. The movie is an act of forgiveness, a representation of forgiveness being a gift you give yourself, to set yourself free from the past and the pain it causes you. Royal may be irredeemable but his family is not. They’re deeply flawed and chronically eccentric, but the script searches authenticity and finds it in abundance.
Though the role of Royal was written with Hackman in mind, it was offered to Gene Wilder, who turned it down.
Danny Glover’s look in the film was modeled after U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, which is possibly my favourite sentence in the world.
There is no such thing as Dalmatian mice; the spots were drawn on with Sharpies.
Anjelica Huston wears Wes Anderson’s mother’s glasses in the film.
The hand that is seen with the BB lodged between its knuckles is not Ben Stiller’s, it’s Andrew Wilson’s (yes, brother to Luke and Owen). It’s no trick, he really has a BB stuck in there and has since childhood. Can you guess which one of his brothers shot him?
I turned to Sean at one point to say that there were a lot of Beatles songs in the film. In fact, Ruby Tuesday was playing at the moment, which is by the Stones, as I’m sure you’re aware, and as I myself am normally aware, though my brain was clearly existing in some alternate reality at the time. There is a Beatles song, and a John Lennon one, and four from the Stones. Brain fart.