I used to feel like I was perceived as a green outcast, showing my age when people would ask me "What's your favorite film?" And I would respond, without hesitation, "The Royal Tenenbaums." I'm not ashamed of that answer, but it always made me feel sort of insecure. Most of the people I know -- movie nerds, film critics and colleagues -- go for the usual classics (Jaws, Casablanca) or members of the Criterion collection (The Red Shoes, Seven Samurai), or even something impressively subversive (I have a friend who says Todd Solondz's Happiness is his favorite). The Royal Tenenbaums hasn't stood the true test of time yet, and it's not some supremely eccentric choice for a favorite film, but it's my choice, and I stand by it.
The great thing about your favorite movie -- whatever it may be -- is how your viewing of it changes over time. When I came to The Royal Tenenbaums as a teenager, I was enamored with the impossible love story between Richie and Margot and the arrested development the characters were in that made me relate to them so well, all trapped in that beautiful Wes Anderson dollhouse aesthetic. And of course, angsty teenage me was thrilled with the use of Elliott Smith. Having struggled with clinical depression off and on for most of my life, the Smith/attempted suicide scene combo always struck a chord. As I got a little older, I found myself appreciating other things about the movie. I delighted in the score and the script and Anderson's stylistic choices, I envied Margot's attitude, fashion and impeccable eyeliner, but I started to realize the character I related to the most was Richie. Anderson loves to make films about the relationship between a child and his/her father (expanded to children and their parents in Moonrise Kingdom), and a father and his relationship to, well, everyone.
And while I totally understood the alienation vibe as a teenager because I was rebellious and wanted to push my parents away, it wasn't until I was a real, serious grown-up that my bond with this film deepened.
The way we view and appreciate our favorite movies is the same as the way we view our parents: they're always the same, but the way we understand them matures and evolves.
Like every Wes Anderson film, my life also features a dad who made some mistakes. I'm not sure when I realized my dad was an alcoholic -- I was probably 18 or 19, and had spent most of the previous three years living with boyfriends to get away from the wonderful suburban life that I found so oppressive. The years went on, and my father's marriage to my stepmom began to fall apart, and the alcoholism seemed less like a casual, familiar novelty and more like an aggressive intruder, inhabiting my father's body. He still mostly sounded like my dad, walked like him, looked like him, and laughed like him, but there was something in there that was not the man who raised me, taught me to ride a bike (by threatening to throw it in the lake if I didn't just get on the damn thing already), introduced me to Nirvana, helped me hide my cigarette habit from my mom, passed me $100 under the table here and there (even when I was old enough to take care of myself), and with whom I shared countless laughs, inside jokes and hugs.
When my stepmom -- who was also struggling with alcohol addiction and living in an environment of co-dependent enabling -- finally left, my dad fell apart. His alcoholism got worse, and worse, and worse. There's that moment when your parents are no longer these seemingly unknowable, unrelatable, omnipotent beings and you see them for what they are: human. They are flawed, they struggle, and they have feelings just like you do. Anderson's films capture that moment when we're on the verge of understanding and accepting our parents as real people -- his characters aren't quite there yet when the story begins, but by the end of the film, they get it. In Tenenbaums, the audience understands that these parents are just as human as their offspring. But because his characters don't quite understand it yet, we're able to see that beautiful intersection -- Royal Tenenbaum is both human and not quite, and like all children, regardless of age, Richie (and Margot and Chaz) think they know everything; they even think they see their father as a flawed human because he abandoned and hurt them, but they haven't allowed themselves to empathize or really understand him yet. They're still children because they are his children.
A big portion of the plot revolves around Royal pretending to have cancer so that his family will forgive him his trespasses and come back to him -- even if it's out of pity. Several months before my dad passed away, he came to me one day and told me he'd won the lottery. I was more than skeptical, of course, especially when he kept changing his story. First he'd won $12 million, then it was more like $10 million, then $9.5 million. He took me with him to look at fancy boats he wanted to buy with his new money. He told me and my sister not to tell my stepmom about the lottery win because he didn't want her trying to get the money in the divorce. Weeks went by, and he still had no money to show. We all knew he was lying, but we played along with his weird, nonsensical little show, like watching a three year-old trying to act out the large hadron collider in a game of charades.
Then one afternoon I went over to his house to check on him, and we sat outside smoking cigarettes and talking, as we usually did. He fell quiet for a minute or two, then he took a drag off of his dying cigarette, and has he exhaled he casually said, "I didn't actually win the lottery," like he was saying, "I ran into Bob today." I didn't hesitate and told him, "I know." He seemed baffled that I knew he was lying -- he was, after all, my father, and as his child I should believe everything he said, even if it wasn't true. And he had an implied point: even as a kid, I always pretended to believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy, but it was more for his sake than mine. He asked me how I knew he lied about the lottery, and I told him that it was obvious when he never received any money and kept making excuses. I asked why he lied about winning the lottery, of all things, and he explained, "I just wanted to see who really loved me."
He said it so earnestly that it was simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. The logic was so incredibly flawed and clouded with boozy thinking. I think he was convinced that my stepmom would try to come back to him if he won the lottery, and then he'd have a real reality TV show moment when he revealed he actually didn't win any money, and she'd look foolish. But I think part of him just wanted my stepmom to come back, even if it was under false pretenses. I truly believe that my dad thought that even when my stepmom found out he was lying, once she was back with him, she wouldn't want to leave. Whatever the case, he really believed that this absurd lie would be the litmus test to show him who really cared.
My dad was Royal Tenenbaum.
There's a moment later in The Royal Tenenbaums, when the whole family discovers that Royal has been faking his illness. He's on the street, talking to Richie:
Royal: Richie, this illness, this closeness to death... it's had a profound affect on me. I feel like a different person, I really do.
Richie: Dad, you were never dying.
Royal: ...But I'm gonna live!
See, it doesn't matter that he did something wrong or illogical, that he deceived his family and manipulated them -- the point is that he believes (whether it's true or not) that this made-up scenario has changed his life. He doesn't believe that lying -- and the reaction to his lying -- was life changing. He was so committed to the lie, that even when he was discovered he still believed in what was behind the deception because the truth and the lie had become so irrevocably intertwined in this idea of just wanting to get his family back -- to make them prove that they cared. And even after he hurts them and betrays what little trust they have left in him, it doesn't matter because hey, you're right, he's not dying -- he's going to live. The point isn't that he lied and his family should be relieved, the point is that he lied and he's relieved.
It didn't matter to my father that he lied -- he genuinely believed in his motivation, and when he told us the truth, there was no apology. He believed he found out who truly loved him, so the lie was worth it, as ridiculous and illogical as the whole performance was.
I had moments where I felt angry like Chaz or I hid my feelings and acted cool like Margot, but I was really like Richie. When everyone else didn't want to listen to my dad anymore, I was still there. I put up with him, I tried to help him, and I listened to his lies and played along.
In the film, Royal Tenenbaum died (years later), and in real life, so did my dad (months later). Just a few days before he passed, I went to check on him and he asked for a ride to the convenience store. It was three in the afternoon, and he was drunk because he was never sober. He couldn't afford to buy even the cheapest pack of cigarettes with his fistful of change, so I bought them for him. He told me he was going out of town to do some work with a former colleague, and I was supportive and glad that he was trying to get back on his feet. I drove him back home, and before he got out of the car he started to cry. He told me, "I'm so sorry. I haven't been the dad I should be. I promise I'll get better for you. For both of us."
We hugged for a minute, and I told him to go take a nap so he'd be well-rested for his big trip the next day. He told me he loved me, I told him I loved him, too. He reiterated, "It's going to be different now, I promise."
I didn't hesitate and told him, "I know."
He walked under the carport and into the side door, into his house all by himself with his vodka and the cat who just gave birth to her third litter, his domestic appliances and king-sized bed, the photos of me and my sister and my stepmom -- a house full of nothing and everything. And he never walked back out.