At the tail end of a humdrum year for movies, The Royal Tenenbaums is exciting a subset of the filmgoing public to the point of veneration. A meticulously off-kilter film, it features two charismatic wits, Gene Hackman and Owen Wilson, and a finely tuned performance from Danny Glover. (Rounding out the A-list cast are Anjelica Houston and Gwyneth Paltrow.) Audiences, however, aren't flocking to see Hollywood royalty; nor are they following the advice of stellar reviews, the movie's critical reception having been decidedly mixed. The reason fans have been clogging up Moviefone and queuing up two shows in advance is for something far more elevated: the curiously engaging sensibility of the film's director, Wes Anderson.
Nothing about Anderson's universe is rote. Bottle Rocket, the story of a deliriously sweet but deluded prep-school hoodlum, Dignan, who can't properly insert himself into a life of crime, was one of the finest small movies of the '90s. By Rushmore, his second feature, Anderson had more money, a star (Bill Murray), and more self-confidence—but also a precious self-awareness. The volatile, bipolar delinquent Dignan had been replaced by Max, the prep-school bard whose elaborately constructed tableaux vivants form an allegory for Anderson himself and his new status as the hipster-geek darling of the moviemaking universe.
By the time The Royal Tenenbaums arrived at the New York Film Festival this fall, the audience could not have been more primed. Each time a signature Andersonian moment passed, they juddered with that added excitement meant to announce, "This movie is mine." Appreciation hasn't been so wedded to self-appreciation since PulpFiction hit the multiplex in 1994; and though Anderson fills his movies with whimsy and forgiveness, not splatter violence and a junk-addled patois, he is in important respects Tarantino's sequel. Both work with ensemble casts, rely heavily on vignette, and dust off half-forgotten pop classics to set the mood. But most crucially, both draw us into alternate universes by means of the unmistakable directorial flourish, little tics or self-referential gags that define the experience of seeing a "Tarantino" or a "Wes Anderson film." Anderson is the quintessential Sundance auteur in the Tarantino mold: His possessory credit now acts as a brand.
How far we've traveled since the mid-1950s, when a band of young French film critics had to gnash on polemically about la politique des auteurs before convincing the world that film was a director's medium and that film masterpieces were always the product of a director's solitary, overriding vision. Those critics—Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard chief among them—had two goals in mind: They wanted permission to make stylized, self-conscious, and personal films that could be considered art on par with novels, poems, and plays; and they wanted, retroactively, to identify greatness among the old studio directors of Hollywood whom they revered.
Here we arrive at a hard irony: The ardor young audiences reserve for Tarantino, and now for Wes Anderson, is in excess of the kind of appreciation the auteur theorists were laboring to instill. True, in France the auteur theory revolutionized cinema, allowing for the more personal, idiosyncratic films of the New Wave. But applied to America by critic Andrew Sarris, the theory argued for something less than total creative control: The greatness of a Hollywood director could be measured by how much he transcended his subjugation, either at the hands of a profit-minded studio system, or at the mercy of hack work in a stale genre. Out of the routine Western, John Ford created a visual and narrative poetry; out of a promiscuous dabbling with inherited material—the screwball, the Western, the noir—Howard Hawks forged a set of distinctive themes and preoccupations. The directorial signature was meant to sneak up on you, not announce itself outright, faster than you can say "Steve Buscemi," in each and every frame.
Now we can begin to understand The Royal Tenenbaums'status as a confounding paradox: The movie is undeniably fresh, witty, and visually creative. It is also posed, overly coy, and occasionally lifeless. It crackles throughout with intelligence; but it is also self-endeared and affected, a series of Cornell boxes, each intriguing in itself but linked to its companions inorganically. The movie's conceit is that it is a novel; well, to write a good one, Faulkner famously said, you must "kill your little darlings." The story of a family of doomed child geniuses, each of whom is given a signature set of tics and biographical quirks, The Royal Tenenbaums too often reads like a catalog of little darlings.
In a season that's given us two coyly delivered instant classics—Amélie is the other obvious example—we might do well to hazard a new formula. The modified auteur theory, or the Magnolia effect, reads as follows: Too much creative control too soon equals too little self-control, a hothouse delight in one's own talent. (To the Magnolia effect we might add The Color Purple corollary: Too little tension between subject matter and technique results in portentous, self-important dreck.)
There is good news, though: The Out of Sight addendum. After Steven Soderbergh launched the recent fetish for small, personal films from a single writer-director with sex, lies, and videotape, he could do no wrong, which, as the Magnolia effect tells us, meant he could do nothing right. A series of films made in the name of unwavering devotion to cinema art—culminating in the goofy mess known as Schizopolis—eventually stripped Soderbergh of his Wunderkind aura, forcing him back to the genre picture with the fetching The Limey and the out-of-sight Out of Sight. By embracing the Julia Roberts vanity pic Erin Brockovich, and more recently, the Rat Pack leftovers Ocean's 11, Soderbergh completed his comeback from art-house oblivion.
Like all good theories, the auteur theory generates attention by being absurd while pinioning the chaos of artistic creation just long enough to subject it to examination. Given too much credence, it results in utter nonsense (if only Jane Campion would remake Dude, Where's My Car?…). Nonetheless, after watching The Royal Tenenbaums,I came across this passage in Boswell's Life of Johnson: "Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."