High Hopes

Wes Andersons tragicomedy of the gifted child

Wes Anderson is an authentic original—an eccentric and heretical talent. Now 31, he has directed only a handful of films, including an extended version of a short called Bottle Rocket and two other features, the oddball romance Rushmore and, now, The Royal Tenenbaums, about a family of former prodigies. As with the earlier films, the new one is funny enough to be taken for a comedy, but there's a deep vein of melancholia to its drollery, an ineluctable air of sadness. Written, as all Anderson's films are, with his close friend, the actor Owen Wilson, the film revisits the same passions that animate the earlier work—friendship, innocence, love, ennui—this time through adult children who, having never got over growing up, live in a haze of disappointment. Their pathos is that while their genius has faded, they can never succumb to ordinariness—the grind from 9 to 5, the right girl or boy to love—which is also their glory. Erstwhile genius has turned them into tragedians of their own existence, however farcical or quotidian, yet that early promise has been its own sort of benediction. Even at their most woebegone, the Tenenbaums live in radiant hope that their lives can again be something other, something different, something better.

This is no easy thing, either for an individual to live or for an artist to convey, particularly without pity or condescension. It's impossible if you don't love your characters as Anderson does—generously and with aching tenderness. For all their mistakes, missteps and spasms of outrageous narcissism, his gentle misfits remain human, never more than when at their worst: The Royal Tenenbaums begins with Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Huston) asking her husband, Royal (Gene Hackman), to move out of the house. Royal breaks the bad news to the couple's three young children—two boys, Chas and Richie, and a girl named Margot—while seated at the head of the family's vast dining table. Framed against a swirl of red velvet wallpaper, his ubiquitous cigarette clamped in its holder, Royal comes across less like a grieving husband and father than like a chief operating officer who has not only accepted the truth of a losing proposition, but also moved on already. "It doesn't," he admits with a shrug, "look good." "Was it our fault?" asks one of the kids. "No," Royal answers, before dispensing a nonchalant twist of the knife: "Obviously, we made certain sacrifices as a result of having children."

Wearing a toupee that curls around the top of his head like a sleeping wombat, Hackman makes a peculiar father, though he's realer than most movie dads—meaner, too. The actor tends to play men who run cold or blistering hot and who often embrace both extremes at once, which helps to explain why so many of them shiver with menace no matter what temperature they're running. Hackman's Royal may not be a monster, at least by the child-rearing standards of the late-1970s backdrop against which the story is launched, but he's oblivious, careless on the edge of cruelty. That Royal doesn't sentimentalize his three children, and wouldn't begin to know how, means that he also doesn't condescend to them. For better and, often, for worse, he treats them like little adults, as equals—and sometimes, calamitously, as rivals. But all this fair play doesn't leave much room for kindness. Royal dismisses one of Margot's fledgling theatrical efforts, then tries to bandage the wound with a lie that neither of them believes: "That's just one man's opinion." It's Margot's 11th birthday, and she's just received the gift of her own imperfection; it's a gift that will keep on giving.

In Anderson's first feature, also titled Bottle Rocket(1996), there's a scene in which the character played by Owen Wilson, Dignan, decides to risk imprisonment in order to save a downed colleague. Dignan and his friends have just failed, sensationally, to rob a cold-storage company. They didn't need the money, but they did need a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to feel special. Mostly, though, they needed one another. Dignan's friend (played by Owen's brother, Luke Wilson) tries to stop him from going back in the building, but he refuses: "They'll never catch me, man, 'cause I'm fuckin' innocent." He's caught, of course, but in doing so, Dignan confirms his own freakish innocence, as well as his poignancy. In that instant, he finds a reason for being, an escape hatch to a more perfect world, maybe even transcendence; he becomes, in another words, yet another American hopeful buoyed by the specter of his own promise. The moment may be fantasy, a reverie, but as with the Tenenbaum childhood, it glitters with possibility. In the new film, Owen Wilson returns, this time as Eli Cash, a friend of the Tenenbaum children who has spent his entire life wanting to be one of them. Now a famous writer of anguished Cormac McCarthy-style prose, Eli still yearns to be a Tenenbaum, to find a place where he can safely hide from the outside world. Like Dignan, he longs for a way out of the here and now.

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