By Craig Joseph
January 2002. I cut out early from work at Willow Creek Community Church and headed over to the AMC 30 Barrington for a matinee. I’d been a big fan of Wes Anderson’s previous films, but something told me this one would be special. Sitting alone in a massive theatre, I was not disappointed.
There were the usual Anderson delights. The production design was stunning, especially the different rooms of the Tenebaums’ Archer Avenue abode, to which I still pay homage by plastering walls of my own home with art of different shapes and sizes, all hung salon-style. The soundtrack was riddled with obscure rock tunes that whetted my appetite for the full albums, and peppered with delicate Mark Mothersbaugh compositions. And, of course, a fantastic ensemble cast playing off each other splendidly.
What hit me most, though – and had me glued to my seat through the credits and 15 quiet minutes after – was the sense that I’d just watched a film that helped me make sense of my own family. Those years were turbulent ones for the Josephs and my twelve-year sojourn – hours away in Chicago and later Minneapolis – often felt like a metaphor for intentional emotional distancing that was often healthy and occasionally necessary. Many times, I was protecting me from myself; I was too willing to jump into a number of roles in my family that were not mine to play, enabling enmeshment, codependency, strange alliances and more. Sitting in the dark and watching a bunch of prodigies – all of them published – struggle to interact with one another helped me breathe a sigh of relief. I laughed at the Tenenbaums, not derisively, but because I recognized them: a bunch of brilliant and talented people who haven’t always known how to connect well with one another. Somehow, Royal and his kin made me feel a little less angsty about my own family’s crippled communication.
A decade later, living back in Ohio, near my parents, with all three siblings here, and a brother-in-law whose outsider status helps lend some perspective to the intense proceedings, we do a better job and it’s been a wondrous gift to see some things I thought were permanently lost be restored. I could attribute this to many things: maturity, wisdom, or the fact that we’ve all been to counseling and are taking our meds.
But watching the film from this vantage point tells me differently. I’ve started to wonder if our foibles stemmed not from emotional deficiencies and paralysis, but from excess. This time, what I saw in the movie was so much love. Eli wants to be a part of the Tenenbaum family so much; Richie and Margot are trapped and confused by their overwhelming feelings for one another; Etheline fills the time her divorce frees up with rearing wunderkinds; Chas can’t forget his deceased wife; even Pagoda is motivated to spy by some level of affection for his old boss.
This seems a lot truer to me when I think of my own familial experience. Maybe it’s that the bigness of our love for one another was (and is) so overwhelming that it sometimes short circuits and disrupts the imperfect emotional apparatus we have for expressing it. Maybe we care too much and love too hard sometimes. If so, those are waters I’m happy, proud and blessed to navigate – and laugh myself through.