The Films of Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson’s films The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited are two vastly different works with similar heart and passion. By this I mean both films convey overlapping concepts and messages; however, they do this through different methods. These films are not as easy to classify unlike most mainstream Hollywood movies. Rather, films by Wes Anderson seem to cross the genre-boundary between “comedy” and “drama”, falling into the particular subgenre most commonly referred to as “dramedy”. This subgenre is categorized as “dramedy” due to the fact that it offers a perfect harmony between serious subject matter and comical content. I assume most of the audience members in line to watch both of these films came into the auditoriums in search of a few good laughs accompanied by plenty jokes. After all, the combination of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums and Jason Schwartzman with Owen Wilson in The Darjeeling Limited does give the impression of a sidesplitting comedy. However, even though both these films do, indeed, have their moments of classic comedy, both pieces of work travel much more into the depths of the dysfunctional families they present on screen.
Every character and every member of the family, whether it’s the Tenenbaums or the Whitmans has their own particular issue and drama that they either ignore and hide away from, or a conflict with which they have every intent of solving regardless of the opposing views from other family members. In The Royal Tenenbaums this can easily be seen as the father, Royal, in making an attempt to reconnect himself with his family whom he has years ago left and abandoned. The rest of the family is at odds with this decision seeing as though they have problems of their own that they need to work out, let alone trying to welcome back a family member who has clearly shown no interest in their family as a whole since the childhoods of the children. Now, in The Darjeeling Limited, this pattern can be easily demonstrated in Owen Wilson’s character Francis who tries to bring his siblings back together during a trip to India in which he attempts to reconnect his family with his mother who has been serving the life of a nun for some years now. Knowing the latter part of this information, the two brothers who Francis wants to reconnect with are outraged due to the fact that they can’t face a mother who would leave their children after the loss of their father, regardless of how grownup they are.
As I have stated above, these two films from Wes Anderson have strayed from the expectations of many viewers due to the depth of the subject matter in question. Wes Anderson has broken from any and all genre barriers to deliver us works that seem to mix and blend lighthearted comedy with shocking explorations of family life. However, there are still some underlying concepts that Anderson appeals to in both films that satisfy the expectations of any and all spectators of the films. These concepts are directly referred to in Noel Carroll’s essay “An Alternative Account of Movie Narration” as the question and answer scheme. A question is raised in the beginning of the film, presumably within the first act, and is later, usually, answered within the last act. The more general and larger “macro questions” are the ones the audiences care about the most, while the “micro questions” are there from scene to scene, hinting at possible alternatives and answers revealed later in the film. This concept of narratives being structured in a question and answer basis is one that most audiences are already aware of when entering a theater. In the case of The Royal Tenenbaums, the primary macro question would be whether or not the Tenenbaums will come to forgive and accept Royal Tenenbaum back into the family, even if he is attempting to win back their love through an ill-conceived lie. While in The Darjeeling Limited, the principal macro question concerns how and if the three brothers will be successful in convincing their mother to go back home with them and whether or not this trip to India has served futile, or has served in bringing the brothers together again as “best friends”.
John Belton’s essay “Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narration” offers several key terms and concepts which helps clarify the narrative structure used both in The Darjeeling Limited and The Royal Tenenbaums. First and foremost comes the age-old concept of equilibrium and disruption. The film begins by setting up how the world is now, perfectly harmonized and in order, and then follows up by an event which disturbs the balance in this world. The film then follows the journey of the main character in bringing back harmony and balance to the world that will lead to the end of the film. Now, in terms of The Darjeeling Limited, this same concept can be aptly applied. Francis brings his two brothers, Peter and Jack, along with him on a trip to India in which they will grow closer together. All this sounds fine to Peter and Jack until they found out the real reason of their trip: to bring their mother back home with them. This is the disruption. Jack and Peter do not feel like confronting their emotions head-on with their mother, as they feel hurt that she has deserted them when their father died. In The Royal Tenenbaums, it is much harder to apply an equilibrium seeing as though the beginning of the film starts out with a full-scale narration of the lives of the Tenenbaums. Seeing as though most, if not all, of the Tenenbaums live disruptive lives as it is, each one of them face dysfunctional families apart from their Tenenbaum roots. Chas is struggling to raise his children single since his wife just recently passed away. Margot is not really in love with her husband, seeking home in her old house rather than with him. Etheline faces the question of whether or not she wants to remarry with her accountant or divorce her husband Royal. And lastly, Richie is lost in love with his sister Margot and cannot communicate to the rest of his family his feelings for her. Since there is so much turmoil in this family to begin with, it is quite difficult to point out an equilibrium; nevertheless, it seems as though the situation that all the members in the family have seemed to accept and gotten used to is the absence and betrayal of the father, Royal Tenenbaum. This is their equilibrium; not having a father figure anymore. When he comes back into their lives, seeking another chance at redemption, Royal is the sudden disruptive force that sets the course for the rest of the movie. Harmony is not restored until the very end. Until then, each character faces their own inner emotions in terms of accepting or denying the father back into their lives. The end of the movie is marked by the acceptance that Chas gives to his father, seeing as though Chas was the most opposed to having him back in the family. Thus, harmony is restored, not as it was exactly in the beginning of the film, but for the better of the characters themselves.
Another important concept to consider in analyzing the narrative structure of these two films has to do with problem solving. Problem solving has to do with the goals that the main character of the story has to achieve by the end of the movie. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Royal has just been kicked out of his hotel due to his lack of sufficient payments. He has been living off his credit cards and checks for the past few years without any sustaining job to keep him under the roof of a real home. After, essentially, becoming homeless, Royal turns to his family in hope that they will forgive him for leaving them so many years ago. This task, being rather difficult, calls for Royal to deceive his family in believing his health is at a fatal condition, and his life will come to an end in the upcoming weeks or months. Royal’s main problem to solve is his distance from his family. He tries to make up for all the years he has spent without them, yet he finds it hard to find the love from one of his sons Chas who has still not forgiven him for stealing money from him. Towards the end of the film, the Tenenbaums discover the lie Royal has led them to believe, and he is then forced out of the house and back into the hotel where he commits to a job running an elevator. As his central goal seems to have failed, the family is then reunited once again by a suicide attempt of one of the siblings, Richie. This turns every emotion of hatred of Royal into sympathy for Richie. The dysfunctional family now becomes a closer family due to their shared emotions. Royal comes into acceptance of his inherent distance from his family, and encourages Etheline to marry Henry Sherman, her accountant. This new form of recognition relieves the stress of trying to be a member of the family again which actually brings everyone to share a mutual feeling of kindness towards him, including his son Chas. During the wedding reception, Chas’ dog is viciously killed by a family friend, Eli Cash’s, driving. Royal then buys Chas the dog owned by the firefighters as they try to clean things up in the front porch. This apology is clearly shown to be accepted later in the film when Royal is in the back of an ambulance, suffering a heart attack, accompanied, hand in hand, by Chas. Problem solved.
In The Darjeeling Limited, the problem-solving notion is also addressed in the form of Francis Whitman who actually has quite a few goals to accomplish by the end of the film. First and foremost, the lie he told to get his brothers to come with him on the trip to India is still relevant. I believe Francis really does want to become closer to his brothers just as they were in the past. The entire film focuses on these brothers who are basically strangers with each other since the death of their father. Francis, perhaps the only brother who is actually dependent on others for emotional stability, has to find someway to bring each other closer together while on this trip. However, the central goal that then becomes the mission of each brother seems to be to convince their mother to come back home with them. It is obvious that she left due to an overwhelming emotional reaction to the death of her husband, but her sons feel not only abandoned, but also worried. By the time the end of the film comes around, Francis, Peter and Jack realize that every person deals with emotional turmoil differently, and maybe they just have to let their mother do what she needs to do to face that reality, even if it does mean being a nun in India. Now, this may seem as if their fundamental problem was never solved; however, I believe it was. Their underlying problem actually lies within their acceptance of their mother being away from them. The fact that they left India without their mother, but with their peace of mind that there is nothing they could do about it, forces us to concluded that their trip was all worth the effort.
There is one factor common to all of Wes Anderson’s films that distinguish them from any other filmmaker’s portfolio. This factor is dialogue. It seems as though Wes Anderson always seems to write his characters with certain actors in mind, mostly because it is extremely difficult to picture the dialogue of one character being spoken by the mouth of another. In The Darjeeling Limited, each character’s dialogue seems to coincide perfectly with the tone and the voice of each actor. Take for example Francis, played by Owen Wilson. Now, Wilson is known to have a very distinguishable presence and voice. He is an actor that steals many of the scenes he is in. His character Francis’ dialogue seems to be as charming as the man himself. He always speaks his dialogue in a soft-voice, which is ironic, due to how commanding the words he uses actually are. Francis is a control-freak; he’s made laminated small cards that lay out the plan for each day. He likes to have control over his brothers as if he was a parental figure. The dialogue written for Francis would seem very out of place spoken by any of his other brothers who are more passive and carefree. This dialogue certainly advances the story forward as it is what leads Jack and Peter to reach a point of irritation with Francis in terms of wanting to be liberated from his control and his deceitful plan that brought them on the trip in the first place.
Much of the same applies for The Royal Tenenbaums as well when specifically talking about characters such as Royal and Margot. These two characters are polar-opposites in terms of dialogue. Royal is a fast talker with much to say and little time to think about what he’s speaking. However, Margot is much more calm and reserved who chooses her few words slowly and carefully. These characters’ dialogues could never be reversed. Royal’s childish and foolish character could never take on a dialogue that commands a composed attitude. Just as Margot’s tranquil and observant qualities could never be matched by dialogue of an obscene and immature nature. These dialogue traits advance the story due to the fact that they define the family and each member within the family, which happens to be the main focus of the film’s plot.
As you can see, there is much to be said when it comes to the films of Wes Anderson, especially The Darjeeling Limited and The Royal Tenenbaums. These two films are so carefully constructed that they allow for a perfect breakdown of their narrative structure from the characters themselves, to the dialogue and even a nit-pick of each scene by scene’s conflict and resolution.
Thank you for reading,
Omar Antonio Iturriaga
*: American Psychological Association (APA): dramedy. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved November 21, 2010, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/dramedy —Noel Carroll. “An Alternative Account of Movie Narration.” 1988. Mystifying Movies — John Belton. “Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narration.” 2005. American Cinema – American Culture. — Greg Rickman lectures