Criterion Sunday 157: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

There are a lot of charges that get levelled at Wes Anderson, his filmmaking and his films — often feelings that I’ve held at some time or another — which is usually around the fastidiousness with which the sets are designed, or the shots are framed, about the sense that emotion has been overwhelmed by the constructedness of the places within which they’re shared, stuff like that. And as I said, sometimes I really do feel that, but while ultimately he may have an outcome very clearly in mind, he’s also canny enough to hire actors who are able to get at something, and it’s something that in Royal Tenenbaums feels particularly deep and sad. Anjelica Huston and Gene Hackman really underpin this whole enterprise, as Etheline and Royal, the estranged heads of this particular family, and it all seems to first come together in the scene where Royal confronts her outside his building, in front of a Japanese embassy building, at first saying he’s dying then retracting that when she makes what he considers too much of a scene, all conveyed in small gestures with a largely static camera.

Thinking about the fact that I recall where it takes place, I don’t happen to think that these details, however elaborately placed, are always all that deep. The embassy has a zen garden after all, which we learn about (and becomes relevant) later, but also that idea of zen seems metaphorically perhaps to be juxtaposed with this emotionally-charged scene that plays out in front. The film is replete with such details, little flourishes around the edge of the frame, but they feel more like a crutch to help the actors, because it’s in them that the film lives. I’ve seen it many many times, but for the first half an hour I don’t particularly feel connected to any of them — they seem at first to be just a set of attributes that Anderson accretes, like the clubs that Max Fischer is part of in Rushmore, more a substitute for character than an expression of it. And when overlaid with the just-so music choices, it almost feels manipulative.

It’s just that, as the film progresses, a sense of this family’s atomisation and the way that every character, deep down (or not so deep in some cases), is fundamentally broken becomes overwhelming. And it’s at that point that I start to go with it, for all that I resist Anderson’s “quirks”. It’s at this point that the children, who seem at first to be so programmatic in their construction (a troubled sports star, an angst-filled artist, an over-compensating business savant), come centre stage, and even actors who I’ve never really felt particularly strongly towards, people like Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow, become so affecting, perhaps because of this. And so the expression of their pain, in conjunction with the sets, the props, the music choices, becomes really, almost strangely, comforting. It’s a film that seems to express the idea that everything can become alright, bearable and liveable despite all the pain.

What I’m left with, then, as something that I find difficult to therefore integrate into this world, is how white it is, Danny Glover’s accountant Henry Sherman aside. All the people of colour are supporting, in almost servile ways, emotional supports for damaged, rich white people. Too many of these minor characters, whom I recall as being treated rather generously, in fact seem rather the butt of jokes upon rewatching the film. How can I sympathise with Royal’s character (which is clearly the intention) when his idea of tearing it up and rebelling against the system seems to involve throwing water balloons at the “Gypsy Cabs”, amongst other things? I don’t know, this may be a blindspot for me, or it may be for Anderson, and it leaves me feeling slightly less generous, but on the whole this is a deeply affecting family drama dressed up as spritely comic fluff.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This disc is packed with little extras, primary among them being a short video documentary portrait directed Albert Maysles (with Antonio Ferrera and Larry Kamerman), With the Filmmaker (2001), in which you really get a sense of how fastidious Wes Anderson is about the details. He also opens up about his process, and the sense (which I think is apparent from the film) of how he feels less obsessed with cinematography and set design and more open to collaboration with actors, although you certainly don’t feel that from all the scenes of him, say, colouring in the hair on one of his brother’s illustrations that will be glimpsed maybe for a brief split-second in the corner of one shot. I end up feeling that Wes Anderson is just the kind of guy I imagined he’d be, and I think that’s a good thing?
  • There are two cut scenes in fairly rough form, one showing Eli Cash’s wife and children (incidentally the wife appears to be Olivia Williams, who starred in Rushmore, though perhaps I’m just wishing it were), presumably excised because that was just a little too much detail that was distracting, and another showing a dinner sequence in which Henry romances Etheline.
  • There are a number of ‘scrapbook’ entries, including some evocative production stills, as well as details of all Eric Chase Anderson’s drawings (the ones that Richie draws of his sister, as well as the ones that adorn his room’s walls), the book and magazine covers with their blocks of Helvetica text, a few choice storyboard pages showing Anderson’s clear visual sense of how the finished film would look, and a short radio interview with the artist Miguel Calderón whose large-scale paintings so memorably adorn Eli’s home.
  • The disc features a series of short interviews with all the leading cast members, reflecting on their characters in the film and their work with Wes Anderson.
  • One of the more interesting extras is an entire episode of the fictional show-within-a-show presented by Peter Bradley (an interviewer apparently modelled on Charlie Rose, and clearly a bit of a creep given we see him in the film at one point fondling Margot’s breast in a backstage scene). His interview is with many of the minor characters, including the Pallanas (father and son Kumar and Dipak), as well as the actors who play the Indian tennis player Richie breaks down while playing, and a guy with the surname of Tenenbaum who’s been in all Anderson’s films. It all feels pretty authentic, especially in the way it’s so excruciating at times to watch, as Bradley messes up all the names, and can’t seem to finish a coherent line of questioning.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Owen Wilson; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, Danny Glover; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 24 March 2002 (and later at Manners Mall Cinema, Wellington, Sunday 16 June 2002, as well as a number of times on DVD subsequently, most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 27 October 2019).

While We’re Young (2014)

Another story of the New York middle classes from its latter-day poet laureate Noah Baumbach, and however insufferable one might expect it to be, While We’re Young actually treads a rather fine and well-judged line for much of its running time. The overall impression by the end is of it being more a drama than a comedy thanks to its extensive disquisition on ethics in documentary filmmaking, but in getting there it does a good deal of wryly amusing legwork as established filmmaker Ben Stiller finds himself being usurped by young pretender Adam Driver. It’s at its strongest in observing the generational differences between Stiller and his wife Naomi Watts, and Driver and his wife Amanda Seyfried, as the older couple find themselves inspired and energised by their youthful counterparts (I suppose one would call them hipsters). Unlike some of the film’s reviewers, I don’t find them particularly ridiculous, but it’s in the nature of Stiller’s characters to overanalyse such things to the point of ridiculousness, and at that he remains a master. Still, I do prefer Baumbach’s looser collaborations with Greta Gerwig (most recently, Mistress America).

While We're Young film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Noah Baumbach; Cinematographer Sam Levy; Starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 21 December 2015.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

When I wrote about The Paperboy earlier this year, I talked a lot about what for me is the defining quality of a two-star film (at least under my ratings system as it was; now I have a category called “mediocre” but you could also call it a 5/10 or grade it a solid B), and this new film from Ben Stiller hits all those middling marks. There are plenty of ways in which this is not objectively a good movie (if such a critical standpoint can be said to exist), but it’s one I found fascinating in all its strangeness. Unlike The Paperboy, Walter Mitty does seem to be straining after awards credibility — which may explain its pre-Christmas release date — but at its heart it’s every bit as perplexing as the more luridly pulpy Paperboy.

For a start, there’s the fairly vacuous plot: man fears he has wasted his life, seeks to fill it. This may work in the short story format, but over a feature length it comes off as rather obvious. The titular character apparently feels there’s nothing interesting about his life as the film starts, but yet he’s standing on a subway platform in Manhattan, commuting to a job at Life magazine — his work preparing photographs for publication is actually quite fascinating (this isn’t The Office). Life is being downsized by a team led by a one-dimensional bad manager played by Adam Scott (distinguished only by a beard that makes him look like an Ancient Persian king), which swiftly brings him into conflict with Mitty. Star photographer Sean (Penn) has sent an iconic photo for the last print edition’s cover, but Mitty can’t find it and uses this as a pretext to travel the world, something he’s missed doing over the course of his life. Thus does one man seek to ‘find himself’ with all the connotations of that hollow phrase.

Then there’s the way the film presents this story and Mitty’s quest. I don’t deny that the images are at times gorgeous (shot by veteran cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh), but within the film they come across like the advertising that precedes this and so many other movies. Partly that’s the way that the kind of Tourist Board-approved aspirational imagery of untouched wildernesses is blended with that strain of modern music so beloved of advertisers, with all its lushly-produced and multi-instrumented promise of something epiphanic — the Arcade Fire being the key example here. It doesn’t really help that product placement is so front-and-centre: the framing story involves Mitty creating a profile on a prominent internet dating site, while his trip to Iceland involves him coming across a chain pizza restaurant which as far as I can tell doesn’t actually have any outlets in that country.

Maybe this stuff could be chalked up to Mitty’s persistent fantasising, but I doubt it. After all, his character’s key habit in the first third of the film is in imagining different outcomes for events he’s participating in, going off into reveries of heroism until the point that he actually does this for real. Thus, as the film progresses, one could follow a reading that his fantasies have taken on such increasingly epic proportions that he is ultimately controlling the very narrative and mise en scène of the film he’s in. In a sense, that’s true, in so far as the star of the film (playing Mitty) is its director, Ben Stiller. Certainly, none of what Mitty does as the film progresses seems particularly realistic, but the way it comes across is like one of those mood-establishing adverts for something aspirational like a luxury car, or aftershave, or visiting Iceland (pro tip: it’s probably worth visiting Iceland, but not for its American chain pizza restaurants). At one point it even turns into a pastiche of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (in which Stiller starred) for a few moments, the ultimate filmic index of stylised unreality.

The effect of all of this is to render the film fascinating to me, as if it were instead a film dramatising the creative compromises that are required to make a major Hollywood motion picture. It doesn’t hurt that the way the narrative progresses is so discursive, like a shaggy dog story or, perhaps more apropos, like a series of skits for Saturday Night Live. Mitty’s escapist fantasies, for example, could easily be stand-alone YouTube clips, and at their funniest (the hilarious parody of Benjamin Button) deserve success in this format. But elsewhere the film just feels unfocused. One moment, Mitty is in New York trying to figure out how to make the object of his affections — Cheryl, a temp played by the winning Kristen Wiig (herself an alum of SNL) — pay him some attention, and the next he’s dropping from a helicopter onto a fishing trawler, or skateboarding down the lower reaches of an active Icelandic volcano, or playing kickball in the Himalayas. And when he finally meets photographer Sean before returning to his life in the States, the film just seems to grind to a halt to take in an (admittedly enjoyable) conversation with Patton Oswalt at LAX.

That discursiveness — the film’s openness to just taking in whatever it likes the look of or thinks is funny, however obliquely it may relate to the advancement of the ostensible plot — is both the weakest element of the film and also what I found most strangely satisfying. Though I also liked all the cast members, from Ben Stiller’s salaryman (whose buttoned-down, almost straight edge, style makes him oddly believable in the subplot wherein he is a former skatepunk) to the lovely Kristen Wiig and the spiky Shirley MacLaine as Mitty’s mother. Plus there is a surprisingly generous number of laugh-out-loud moments.

I’ve tried with this review to make a case for what I liked about the film, but I’ll probably never convince either you or myself that it’s a great film or even worth watching a second time. But I enjoyed my trip with Stiller and co. that first time even if I’ll probably end up sticking with my uneventful office job.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty film posterCREDITS
Director Ben Stiller; Writer Sean Conrad (based on the short story by James Thurber); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 25 November 2013.