Bridget brought The Royal Tenenbaums with her when she visited recently and I
watched it with her. I gather it's one of her favorites but I wasn't really a fan. It
has some great sequences, especially the ones introducing the characters, but while the
movie as a whole initially seemed like a riff on Salinger's Glass family of child geniuses
— one of whom was named Boo Boo Tannenbaum — it quickly settled into a Hotel
New Hampshire groove, which is not a good thing. It had lots of wacky characters that
make for a downright zany cast photo but not for a very good story. Very few are as entertaining
as the movie clearly thinks they are, and some (Eli Cash, for one) are actively annoying.
The exception, for me, was Margot. I don't even know why, really — she's unappealing
in a lot of ways. I know it's not because of Gwyneth Paltrow, because I'm mainly thinking
of the child version of Margot here. There's just something about the combination of, on
the one hand, the goth eyes and Wednesday Addams stone-faced seriousness and life of slights
and indignities, and on the other, the stripey polo shirts and blonde pageboy hair with barrette
— it's a compelling incongruity. But the movie can't be about her because it has to
cover about fifteen other people at the same time.
If anyone gets a plurality of the movie's attention it's the patriarch, Royal Tenenbaum, who's
a thief and a con artist but passes this off as just being "a character." We learn that back
in the day he had stolen tens of thousands of dollars from eldest son Chas, the business prodigy,
and also shot him with a BB gun in a fit of hypercompetitiveness; he also played a key role in
crushing Margot's spirit. His plot thread involves faking stomach cancer in order to get back
into the good graces of his family and teaching Chas's children to be hooligans. But by the
end of the movie he's basically been deemed a lovable rascal.
I didn't really find this all that entertaining because to a great extent I've already lived
that story. My father isn't quite as bad as Royal Tenenbaum, but he is the flakiest human being
I have ever met. When I was a kid I often found myself stranded in front of an empty school for
six, eight, ten hours... every couple of hours I'd call home on the pay phone and ask my dad why
he wasn't coming to pick me up and he'd say, "I am leaving right now!" and two more hours would
pass and I'd call and he'd still be there. This pattern has been especially pronounced whenever
money is involved — after I got my driver's license, I can't tell you the number of times
he sent me down to Anaheim City Hall with "EMERGENCY PAST DUE LAST NOTICE" bills. I became something
of a fixture there, handing over checks at 4:58pm so our electricity wouldn't be shut off. And then
we have all the loans, both voluntary and involuntary. When I was around Chas Tenenbaum's age, I was
making a fair amount of money my own self, appearing on TV — and like in the movie, unbeknownst
to me, my father was putting it into his own account and spending it. In the past I have mentioned
that the car I drive was paid for with my TV money; the truth of the matter is that after I graduated
from college, I needed a car, and as my father still owed me about twenty thousand dollars, he agreed
(after much drama) to pay me back by taking over my car payments (automatically through the bank,
because otherwise he would undoubtedly have fallen months behind). In short, he took my money
starting when I was nine and finished paying me back when I was twenty-six.
And yet because he is my father I haven't been able to bring myself to just flat-out cut him
off. I was in the process of moving to Seattle when he asked me to hand over most of the money
I'd received for Ready, Okay!, a five-figure sum — just until the end of the week, he
insisted, since he had some deposits that might take a few days to clear and he wanted to make sure
he didn't bounce any checks in the meantime. "Until the end of the week" ended up becoming something
in the neighborhood of six months. Even just recently, he was supposed to reimburse me for my travel
expenses when I went to Los Angeles for his wedding, and it turned into a
fiasco: my bank returned his check with an "insufficient funds" stamp on it, he promised to pay me
online and then didn't, his "I will do it today!" stretched out into weeks... actually, let me tell
you a story. I've told it before, but I have a different spin on it this time.
In 1993 I went with my father to Virginia to visit my sister Abby's gravesite. I'd never been there
before. It was mid-March and the ground was covered in a thin layer of snow. At this cemetery,
the National Memorial Park in Falls Church, graves are marked not by headstones but by bronze plaques
set into the ground. The snow had enough melted spots that I could see quite a few of them as we
walked toward spot 1A, where I found... a blank patch of snow. "Dig away the snow," my father
suggested. I had a cardboard box with me which I used to scrape away the snow — nothing.
Eventually I reached the point where I was turning over dirt, and I felt a wave of nausea as I realized
that technically this now counted as exhumation. So I stopped.
Now, let's think about this. You have to think that a person would remember buying a grave marker,
especially given that there's more to it than just forking over some money — you have to create
a design and so forth. (I know this because after my first advance check came in I designed and
bought one.) So my father must have known perfectly well that we were going to visit a
blank patch of ground. And yet he had me dig, just to put off for another thirty seconds the
moment of having to explain that he had flaked for, at that point, sixteen years and change.
A couple of days later we finally had an argument over it and a bunch of other things, and he told
me about how he had also had grievances against his father, who was an Old World type who made his
children stand at attention when he entered the room and so forth. Nevertheless, my father said,
when he learned that his father had been killed in a car crash, he felt like the ground under his
feet had been ripped away... and what I am now realizing, twelve years after this conversation, is
that one of the reasons my father's flakiness gets me so infuriated even today is that as I was
growing up, he kept ripping the ground out from under my feet over and over again. As a kid, you
want to believe that you can rely on your parents, that you have some sort of solid base you can
depend on and explore the world from there, but it was repeatedly demonstrated to me that this was
not in fact the case. It makes you pretty insecure.
So I was not really in a very charitable mood toward Royal Tenenbaum and his ilk.
Return to the Calendar page!