Go ahead and figure out the meaning of Bottle Rocket, his auspicious 1996 debut about a pair of slacker friends bound for whatever in a botched heist plan. And just what the hell was 1998's brilliant Rushmore all about, beyond a chance to discover Jason Schwartzman (as a delusional underachieving prep-school devotee) and rediscover Bill Murray (as his, ahem, romantic rival). Nevertheless, Anderson breathes fire into his storytelling, his characters and his mise en scene, stoking those flames with a pop-song soundtrack that puts Cameron Crowe to shame. And yet, underneath it all murmurs the faint heartbeat of melancholy. Weird, huh?
If Anderson means anything with his films, maybe it's that we are all innocent victims of our whims, our fantasies, our dreams and, above all else, our ridiculous human nature. And even if his ironic detachment can border on self-indulgent -- most evident in his most recent work, The Royal Tenenbaums -- he remains one of the freshest young voices in American cinema. Faulting Anderson for getting a little too caught up in himself is like saying Baz Luhrmann is too audacious. Let 'em take chances, for chrissakes, and enjoy the ride. His movies, drenched in their pop-culture sensibilities, are like his main characters: Bottle Rocket's Dignan and Rushmore's Max Fischer: it's the thought that counts.
The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson's most ambitious work to date, is one hell of a ride, as he presents a dysfunctional family of geniuses in slapdash fashion and dares us to keep up. It's ambitious in the pastiche of characters he presents and also in the textures he gives them. What's it about, you ask? Um ... .
Maybe the film can best be summed up with the fine-line exchange between morally bankrupt patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and the rival for his estranged wife's affections. Nearly admitting defeat to Danny Glover's nerdy family accountant, Royal half-confesses, "I've always been considered an asshole for most of my life. That's just been my style." To which Glover replies, "I've always thought you were more of a sonofabitch."
Now, to get to that surprisingly illuminating moment, we have to endure a frenetic story (told in sweet chapter form) of Royal's rocky marriage to his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston, never better), and the errant trajectories of the lives of their prodigal children. There's financial wunderkind Chas (Ben Stiller), who's brilliant enough to sue his old man when he realizes he's being swindled; brooding (and adopted) daughter Margo (Gwyneth Paltrow), a prize-winning playwright; and tennis ace/daddy's favorite Richie (Luke Wilson). All three geniuses had, at one point, major career arcs that were ostensibly snapped years after the parents split due to Royal's countless shenanigans.
Hovering around the periphery are a cast of oddball characters who have their own love-hate relationships with the Tenenbaums: childhood playmate Eli Crash (co-writer and Anderson collaborator Owen Wilson), Margot's lover Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), and Henry Sherman (Glover), the shy accountant who's smitten with Etheline.
And now, the patriarch's back, trying to reclaim his family because he's dying -- well, not really. He's actually broke, and it's this quintessential corrupt rationale that's at the (dare I say it) heart of this film. Sometimes, the means justify the ends, especially when it comes to family. Royal wants his family back, because even an asshole or a sonofabitch recognizes that blood is thicker than water. From this core story springs all of the subplots that sort of help to explain how the kids got to where they are and how they're barely struggling to get back, and how Royal's crash re-entry into their lives somehow helps solve their many problems.
The Royal Tenenbaums brims with life as Anderson connects the dots of these broken-home lives, painting his scenes in yellows and reds and dressing everyone up as if he'd just watched his millionth That '70s Show episode. (What is up, for instance, with Richie's teri-cloth headband, or Chas' polyester Adidas warm-ups?) And then there are the countless, craftily chosen tunes, from the Beatles' "Hey Jude" and Vince Guaraldi's "Christmastime Is Here" to Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" and Lou Reed's "Stephanie Says." A scene with Royal gleefully corrupting Cas' twin sons in a montage sequence, set to Simon's tune, shows what being a grandfather is all about.
With so many small stories coalescing into a greater whole, and working with so many stars (all of whom are uniformly excellent, especially the Oscar-worthy Hackman), Anderson has taken a very important step in a career whose arc shows no signs of snapping. And that is, indeed, a blessed thing.