Only laugh when it hurts

"Happy families are all alike," Leo Tolstoy famously wrote, "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." That’s an adage writer-director Wes Anderson has obviously taken to heart.

Few movie families have been so spectacularly — and specifically — unhappy as the Tenenbaums, the eccentric clan Anderson examines under his latest cinematic microscope. Although his films (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore) are usually categorized as comedies, there’s a powerful vein of pain running through The Royal Tenenbaums, and the humor stems from characters completely immersed in their own sadness.

"I think he makes very serious movies under the guise of comedy," says Anjelica Huston, who plays Etheline Tenenbaum, the family matriarch. "This movie is as much about disenfranchisement and the disconnectedness of love as it is about the funnies. It’s about the impossibility of love, and how love is there and everybody feels it, and everybody wants to exchange it, and nobody can really make that impossible jump."

Part of the problem is that for the Tenenbaum children, a chasm exists between their emotional and intellectual lives, one that only grew wider as they entered adulthood. Chas (Ben Stiller), Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Richie (Luke Wilson) were once the subject of Etheline’s book, A Family of Geniuses, because they were prodigies in their respective fields (finance, theater and sports). Now each is adrift in the kind of crushing failure that too often haunts early bloomers.

"When I was a kid," recalls Anderson, "I was always really impressed by this one kid who had skipped a couple of grades, and he had to go somewhere else to do his math because he was past our whole school. He was like a kid who couldn’t really get his lunch unwrapped — he couldn’t deal with normal life at all. So I was always impressed and puzzled by him. I’ve always had a fascination with people who are prodigies."

The 32-year-old filmmaker, who is now wearing the mantle of American cinema’s next great auteur, is a man who constantly sweats the details. Anderson writes his smart scripts with Owen Wilson, the terrifically deadpan actor who plays Eli Cash, Tenenbaum childhood friend and hanger-on, who finally tastes success with the western bestseller, Old Custer (providing the duo with the opportunity to spoof highbrow sagebrush author Cormac McCarthy).

Their novelistic screenplay examines all the weird minutiae that people collect and subsequently use to construct their personalities. The characters in The Royal Tenenbaums are built from their own colorful Lego sets, quirky individuals whose absolute uniqueness not only distinguishes but isolates them as well.

"Wes has just kind of got a specific way that he does things," explains Luke Wilson. "I’ve worked with a few different directors, and they could care less what kind of chair you’re sitting in or how the table’s arranged or even what you have on in the scene. They’re concerned about different things, but Wes focuses on every single aspect down to your watch and what kind of glasses you have on. This one was the most intense to date in terms of the attention to detail."

That fervent meticulousness is reflected in the film’s oddball wardrobe. The Tenenbaum offspring, in particular, wear their clothes like uniforms from a lost era.

"Part of it is, they haven’t changed that much," says Anderson, "so the stuff they wear when they are kids is the same stuff they wear now, more or less. They really found themselves when they were young, and then they’ve just stayed with that, even though it doesn’t fit anymore. I always feel like if an actor has not just clothes to wear, but a real costume to put on, then it helps them to lock into their performance, and it becomes part of setting the mood of the thing, too."

What distinguishes Anderson as a filmmaker, says Gene Hackman (the Tenenbaum patriarch, Royal), is that "he’s a young man who has a concept. A lot of young people just remake something. They may call it something else, but it looks like a lot of films, and to his credit, this film does not look like a lot of other films.

"A lot of times as an actor," continues Hackman, "we’re not always aware of the visual, of where the director’s head is in terms of how he’s setting a shot up. In this film, a lot of shots were very static, so as an actor who likes to get up and be physical and instill a lot of behavior in my characters, that was so off-putting at first, until I recognized what he was trying to do. It was an interesting process because it takes a lot more focus then, that you can’t dissipate your energy through behavior — you have one thing that you have to focus on. It’s a way of making films that, for a certain kind of film, works quite well."

The sensibility of Anderson’s films can almost be described as sincere irony — there are so many elements at work that simultaneously attract and distance the audience. He’s a cult director working in the mainstream, who creates very unconventional stories for a mass audience.

The people who have worked with Anderson see this as an outgrowth of a singular sense of humor he shares with the Wilson brothers, fellow Texans he met in the creative university environment at Austin. That this trio have enjoyed a measure of Hollywood success is all the more remarkable, considering that they haven’t tried to conform, but have carved out their own filmmaking niche instead.

"They have their own unique sensibility," says Ben Stiller, "which is really fun to be a part of and to watch. They definitely have their own language which they speak. There are a lot of funny, kind of sly jokes, inside jokes. They’re always laughing about things that are so subtle, and little remarks that one might make that nobody else would find funny."

See Big Screen for James Keith La Croix’s review of The Royal Tenenbaums.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at