By Tim Barlow
Timing is everything. On the whole, I enjoy Wes Anderson movies, but admittedly, I have to be in the right mood: hoping for a grin or a chuckle, but not a cackle, nostalgic for a lost innocence but not sentimental, a more stylized thoughtfulness, a touch of existential angst, but not too much, yes, just the one helping is fine. Sometimes I’m there, sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I instantly like one of his films on the first try, as I did with Moonrise Kingdom, and sometimes it takes a few efforts, with years in between, as it has with The Royal Tenenbaums.
I first saw Tenenbaums in college, on a lazy weekday afternoon, while sitting on a couch with broken legs, and frankly, I didn’t get it. It was right on the verge of being funny, but it kinda wasn’t It was quirky, which I thought I would appreciate, but even this was a bit much. Was that the whole point? To be quirky? Why isn’t Bill Murray being Bill Murray?
But looking back, it’s clear that my lack of appreciation had much more to do with my period of life than any flaws in the movie itself. Early college saw me homesick at times, missing its familiarity and comfort, defensively comparing (if only in my head) my upbringing with those of friends around me, still thinking of a decent family life as something I had earned, and could therefore hold onto proudly. My parents were still together. We weren’t financially strapped. There was no addiction or abuse. And so there wasn’t a whole lot to force me to take a closer look. I wasn’t removed enough from living at home. I wasn’t grown enough to start to recognize or trace back my own character traits, seeing their formation in how I was raised. To assess my quick temper. To ask why I froze up during arguments. I hadn’t yet been told that I had high blood pressure, and that there probably wasn’t much I could do about it. But maybe that’s why I couldn’t really appreciate Tenenbaums the first go ‘round. All I could see was a weird, clearly flawed family of eccentrics on screen.
Seeing it again 12 years later, I felt more equipped to look past the thick layer of Andersonian eccentricity to see a much simpler story of grown siblings forced to look back on their promising starts, and make peace that their lives weren’t quite panning out as originally planned. To accept, that family was as much to be credited for who they were as it was for who they weren’t I may not have been a gifted tennis prospect or a business prodigy or a brilliant young playwright, but I do now recognize this tale of managed expectations.
The temptation would be to stop here. To leave me moping through life with luke-warm coffee crying out from my cold park bench to the passing ducks, “Its all meaningless?!.” But that would presume to say that the course we set for ourselves early on is the best we can muster. That because I’m not the professional indoor soccer player I aspired to be at the age of 8, I’m a failure. I am not. I’m actually somewhat grateful to not be a professional indoor soccer player. Now I view Tenenbaums, and I’m guessing Craig feels similarly, as Wes Anderson’s pretty brilliant take on a family and its members making peace with themselves and each other. The quirky spins and ways that the young family shows its promise early on, act only as exaggerated examples for the ways we all enter this world. As promising upstarts. And the ways they fail, again, just clown makeup on a mirror to our own inevitable setbacks as we go. But the path towards accepting and eventually cherishing that which we can’t choose, that’s the important stuff. I’m still working on it, but 13 years ago I definitely wasn’t mature enough to begin making peace with it all. To accept that my parents and my siblings and I, were as human as could be, not idols or gods, and this, especially this, was something to be celebrated. I wasn’t there. I’m still working on it. But timing is everything.