Tag: 2001

Social Uniforms in Film: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)


Wes Anderson’s films offer the most consistent examples of cinematic social uniforms (the idea of a single costume or variation on one that a character wears as an everyday outfit, separate from a school- or work-related uniform), aside from those of Hal Hartley (who is a clearly a major influence on Anderson). His characters typically sport one specific outfit, or variations on one, or, at times, literal uniforms related to a job or association. They come to define the characters in some way, and allow the actors to blend into Anderson’s meticulously-crafted visual worlds. My favorite Anderson film has remained The Royal Tenenbaums, and it is rife with social uniform goodness.

The Tenenbaum family dynamic is laid out in a prologue detailing their lives 22 years prior to the main narrative, setting up the interests, personalities, and styles of mother Etheline (Angelica Huston), father Royal (Gene Hackman), oldest son Richie (Luke Wilson), adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), younger son Chas (Ben Stiller), and young neighbor Eli (Owen Wilson). Though considered a “family of geniuses” at the time, the following years are marred by failure, betrayal, drugs, death, and regret. When the long-shunned Royal decides to come back into their lives by faking cancer, he unwittingly alters the relationships of everyone associated with his family. Tellingly, each adult character is introduced in a series of tableaux looking into the camera as a mirror and primping in some way. From the beginning, each individual’s personality and position is in a sense defined by their appearance, and specifically by the look they create for themselves to present to the world. Most of them maintain the same style over the course of 22 years, and for the few who change, the switch signals a major emotional shift.




Etheline is a steady, intelligent, and loving woman who dedicates herself to her children’s education, and later to the study of anthropology. Her look is thoughtful and no-nonsense, thanks to a range of color-coordinated dress suits, tinted glasses, and pulled-back curls. Her palette is soft, with pastel blues, pinks, and tans, all perfectly matching shirts, skirts, blazers, and coats. Her appearance is assured and confident, but warm, reflecting her kind, nurturing personality combined with a professional edge. Like his ex-wife, Royal oozes confidence in his appearance, but its effect is more slimy, and more of a facade. His grey, double-breasted pinstripe suite, paired with fine silk shirts and striped ties in playful pinks and purples, allows him to maintain his delusions of grandeur as he holds on to his once-impressive status as a top lawyer and model patriarch. Along with his wool winter coat, he dons an old-man cap and cane as affectations, symbols of seniority and life experience. His ego and charisma are all he has left, and he needs his look to match. His foil is Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), Etheline’s accountant and suitor, whose standard outfit is almost comical, clearly contrasting with Royal’s elegant attire. His bright blue suit, checkered shirts, and jaunty bow ties present an unintimidating, un-self-conscious man. To Royal, Henry is barely worth worrying about, but for Etheline, he is the kind of respectful, unassuming, good-natured man she could suddenly find herself falling for. He is in many ways Royal’s opposite, but shows himself his equal, and though his clothing is a little bit on the silly side, that bright blue of his suit clearly represents a bolder man than we at first realize, one who tries to do the right thing while fighting for the woman he loves and the family he’s ready to join.



Richie and Margot Tenenbaum do not change their look from childhood into adulthood. As a child, Richie is an amateur painter and talented tennis player, going pro as a teen but retiring early after suffering a nervous breakdown on the court. In the years that follow, he continues to present himself (and be viewed by others) primarily as an athlete, maintaining his Bjorn Borg-esque look right down to the long hair. He is most often shown in his striped polo tennis shirt, customized “Baumer” wristbands, striped sweatband, and aviator sunglasses, with a tan-colored suit jacket and slacks that somehow normalize the fact that he’s always wearing athletic accessories. Richie is the most well-adjusted of the Tenenbaum children, the most accepting of his father’s efforts to reconnect, and generally the most collected in his temperament. His lifelong love of his adopted sister Margot haunts him, but he rarely allows that to show, and so his appearance is, like Royal’s, a facade of stability. His outfit connects him to his past success as a well-known tennis player–even causing strangers to recognize him and request a photo or signature–but it also marks him as a man in stasis, literally wearing his arrested development on his sleeve. He has not changed his appearance because he cannot move on from Margot, or (to a lesser but still notable degree) from his failure in his career. He may physically travel around the world but he himself remains emotionally stuck. When he finally decides to make a change–not so much in clothing choice but in shaving his hair and beard–it is right before he attempts suicide, reflecting how closely connected his outward appearance is linked to his internal conflict.

The sullen and mysterious Margot is a promising playwright as a child, but has not written for several years, living a reserved life with her doting anthropologist husband, Raleigh (Bill Murray). The narrator notes that she “is known for her extreme secrecy,”¬† and her attire reflects that quality. She is typically depicted in a large, knee-length fur coat and brown loafers, with a barrette in her hair and dark, smoky eyeliner. Underneath her coat she wears an assortment of striped, form-fitting polo dresses. Like Richie, she too is stunted, though she doesn’t know how or why (she acknowledges only that she is “in a rut”), and her clothing reflects her apparent entrapment between childhood and adulthood. She dresses exactly as she did as a young girl right down to the childish barrette, but has lost the triumphs and confidence of that time. She attempts to make up for her own feeling of failure and creative stagnation by cultivating a mystique, wrapping herself figuratively in enigmas and secrets of her own making, and literally in an oversize fur coat. She clings to her status as an outsider (her father’s frequent references to her adoption reinforcing her “otherness”), intentionally setting herself apart and shielding herself from more open emotion or deeper connections. Her unconventional but hip outfit conveys an eccentric, controlled, closed-off person, which is exactly what she wants.



The two characters whose looks wildly change from their childhood selves are Chas and Eli, though their reasons differ. Chas is mourning the loss of his wife, grown paranoid for the safety of his two young sons and seeking solace in the house where he grew up. Throughout the film he primarily wears a bright red Adidas tracksuit with white stripes, with matching sets for his children (who also share his messy dark hair). The effect is primarily comical to viewers, this goofy-looking family that matches from head to toe, and it’s easy at times to forget the incredible pain they are all in. Chas has been a brilliant businessman his entire life, hard-working and capable, and yet we rarely see him in that capacity. Instead he is anxious, unsure, and irritable; one might deduce that his chosen outfit–simple, comfortable, generic–is such because he is unable to handle his usual day-to-day routine, his suits and ties and conference calls. He puts on clothes that suggest exercise and health, in a color that denotes confidence, because his own fear of death and especially the loss of his children is suddenly too much to bear. Like Margot, he shrouds himself through his clothing, and like her he seems to find difficulty in accepting gestures of love or care from others, instead closing himself off. I’ve always found Chas’s arc the most affecting, and his realistic grief juxtaposed with his silly appearance speaks to Anderson’s somewhat dark sense of humor and Hartley-esque approach to pathos.

Eli Cash was a chubby, awkward boy who lived with his grandmother and spent as much time as he could at the Tenenbaum house. As a child he is always shown in his maroon school uniform, with a bland look on his face and a bad haircut. As an adult, he has made himself over completely, gaining acclaim as a novelist in the Hemingway/London vein (manly, wildernessy), and so he dons a fringed leather jacket, cowboy hat, and various western-style shirts, with a Southern accent to match. He has lived his life in the shadow of the Tenenbaum family, wishing he could be a part of their wealth and genius, and indeed even as he eclipses their fame he feels the need for their acknowledgement, calling Margot frequently and sending Etheline his article clippings. He seems to have attained all he wanted, but only by creating an over-the-top persona to slide into, a well-spoken cowboy who glams up his professorial lifestyle with sex and drugs. Of course, like most of the characters in this movie, his appearance is something of a facade. He continues to feel inadequate, falling deeper into serious addiction, though he never sheds the image he’s made for himself, maintaining it even in rehab, so it seems to have worked for him.


Wes Anderson dresses his actors the same way he dresses his sets: meticulously, nostalgically, and with personality. He uses objects to suggest personal history, and clothing to evoke certain character traits. Actors are made up so that they fit snugly into his perfectly orchestrated worlds, visually suited to their vintage ephemera and monogrammed everything. There is a kind of stationary-ness to his settings, a sturdy there-ness that puts them squarely in his familiar aesthetic (and outside of the real world, where things are messy and always rearranging). The rooms are dressed so carefully it seems unlikely anything will change, and his characters are often the same. Their clothes are an extension of themselves, and their selves are generally fixed in place. Anderson’s world is comforting in its consistency, its reliability, and he gives the same quality to his characters, who maintain specific, intentional appearances that ensure their place within that world. And ultimately, I think the appearances of the Tenenbaums really do say it all.

Movie Review: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Seen: On Criterion blu-ray on our projector set-up, from our collection.

A dysfunctional trio of former child geniuses returns to their childhood home for the first time in over a decade. Successful businessman Chas (Ben Stiller), still grieving over the loss of his wife in a plane crash, believes his own house is not safe for him and his two sons. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), a playwright who hasn’t written anything new in years, is unhappy in her marriage to neurologist Raleigh St Clair (Bill Murray) and needs a change. Richie (Luke Wilson), a former pro tennis player now sailing around the world after suffering a breakdown during a high-profile match, returns to hopefully resolve his romantic feelings for Margot, who is adopted so it’s totally not illegal (but maybe frowned upon). While their archaeologist mother, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), is being romanced by her adorable accountant (Danny Glover), their scoundrel of a father, Royal (Gene Hackman)- who has not been invited to family events in years- pays a visit claiming he’s dying of stomach cancer.

Oh goodness, this movie gives me feelings. Artfully fusing kooky, understated humor with heart-wrenching pathos, The Royal Tenenbaums is, for me, the perfect balance of Wes Anderson’s by-now all-too-familiar filmmaking traits. It’s funny and “quirky” without moving too far into caricature, and the characters are incredibly strong. Each actor is able to convey a lot about their person without too much dialogue or showy moments, aided gracefully by an unseen Alec Baldwin as the narrator and a group of really talented child actors for flashback scenes. I really just feel for these characters, all of them (and there are many!), as everyone is just sort of dealing with their own personal tragedy in a wry, self-aware way. While on paper Richie’s Elliot Smith scene is the most affecting, I actually am always moved to tears by one simple exchange towards the end of the film. After Eli (Owen Wilson) crashes his car into the house and kills the dog, and Chas freaks out about his kids and beats up Eli, and in the aftermath he’s just standing there, and he turns to Royal and says, with a slight break in his voice, “I’ve had a rough year, dad.” Royal responds sympathetically, “I know you have, Chassie.” And that’s it, Chas walks back into the house. It’s this completely heart-breaking moment for me, I’m honestly tearing up right now just thinking about it.

Ok sucking it up now. Of course The Royal Tenenbaums is also pretty funny, and has a million little funny jokes and goofy characters and subplots. Raleigh’s unusual patient/research subject Dudley could have his own movie. I love all the fake books created for different characters, especially Eli’s Old Custer (“Well everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t?”). Visually, the aesthetic is perfect. Anderson’s penchant for obsessive details and antique charm is well-suited to the film’s pseudo-New York setting, and I get a little hot and bothered by all the prim, well-organized tableaux. I mean, Chas arranges his suitcases by size. It’s really nice. And the scene transitions featuring chapters from an imagined book of the story are a sweet touch. This film also features self-assigned character costumes, which I always really love. Margot’s collared dress and fur coat, Chas’s red track suit (with matching ones for his sons), Richie’s headband, polo, and tan blazer- these outfits create shields around their wearers as well as a certain kind of comical repetition. It’s one of my favorite Movie things, in general.

I guess I just love everything about this movie. I listen to the soundtrack pretty often, I think it’s tied with The Life Aquatic for favorite Wes Anderson soundtrack. I quote certain lines from it regularly (“I KNOW YOU ASSHOLE!”), and I never really tire of talking about it. It’s the Wes Anderson film I stack all the rest against, and he has yet to top it.

AND YES I know this is just a rich white people problems kind of movie but goddammit if it doesn’t just GET to me every time. The TEARS, man. UGH.


Pair This Movie With: It’s taken me wayyy too long to pick up on this but I finally realized that the Tenenbaums are basically an updated version of JD Salinger’s Glass family so I think it’d be nice to read Nine Stories or Franny & Zooey before watching this movie. Or you should just read them in general, if it’s your kind of thing.

Movie Review: CQ (2001)

Seen: On our big screen/projector set-up, streamed from my boyfriend’s hard drive.

While editing and eventually taking over directing duty of cheesy science-fiction sexploitation film Dragonfly, Paul (Jeremy Davies) seeks artistic fulfillment by making his own introspective art film in his apartment. His obsession with filming everything puts a distance between him and his live-in girlfriend Marlene (√Člodie Bouchez), and he finds himself growing more attracted to Dragonfly‘s star, Valentine (Angela Lindvall). He hangs out with materialistic movie people in Paris and Rome but never really makes any connections.

CQ combines aspects of DIY French New Wave, goofy high-concept 60’s sci-fi, and behind-the-scenes movie-making for an eclectic but ultimately uneven and unsure film. It’s got a lot of good ideas and a solid cast, but as it flits around from movie-within-a-movie to narrated self-pity, it comes off too disjointed. I was often confused about what was happening, what was a dream or film scene or reality, and while I’m sure that’s partially the point, there was so little actual plot to follow that I found I didn’t especially care about this effect. This is writer/director Roman Coppola’s only solo feature effort to date so I guess I can’t be too surprised that it’s a bit clunky.

Gosh I sound negative! Moving past the structure/script/pacing issues, CQ is a pretty cool movie! It’s got Jeremy Davies, one of the cutest people alive, and he gets to wear nice suits and charm some ladies and nervously navigate the inner workings of the European film industry in the late 60’s. The fake movie he’s making actually looks pretty rad, and the various glimpses of its futuristic setting and action espionage are silly and interesting, along with a look at how some of the visuals and effects are achieved. The soundtrack is excellent (some might say… “groovy”?) and there are some funny references and neat action sequences. I just wish it had all fit together better.


Pair This Movie With: Because I enjoyed the Dragonfly sequences, this put me in the mood for Barbarella or The Adventures of Stella Star or some such outing. The realistic parts were a little reminiscent of Marcello Mastroianni wandering around Rome trying to figure out what the hell is going on in this crazy time in La Dolce Vita, but I don’t think I’d pair the two.

Movie Review: Legally Blonde (2001)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, recently purchased for $5 at an FYE-ish place in Toronto HMV! Livin’ on the cheap!

I’ve been sort of in the mood to watch this movie for about a year but I never think to buy it. UNTIL NOW. Based on the book by Amanda Brown and penned by the screenwriting team who would sadly later go on to write The House Bunny and The Ugly Truth, Legally Blonde stars Reese Witherspoon as popular and perky sorority president Elle Woods. Dumped by her pretentious wannabe lawyer boyfriend, she enrolls at Harvard Law School to prove to him that she can be the kind of wife he needs to impress his hoity-toity family. She quickly discovers that her bubbly personality, loud fashion, and naivety cause her Harvard peers to snub her- and underestimate her.

Hiding beneath its pink and frivolous facade, Legally Blonde is actually pretty clever and forward-thinking in many ways. Beginning as a desperate forced romance between a supposedly vapid homecoming queen and a bland, stuck-up asshole, it at first seems like an over-the-top romantic comedy. But you know what? Romance is barely a focus here, which is always awesome in any lady-fronted comedy. When you’ve got Witherspoon’s adorable high-pitched antics, Selma Blair making some amazing faces, and Jennifer Coolidge doing anything, there really isn’t any need for a romance to bore things up. Sure Luke Wilson makes eyes at Elle, but it’s not really a thing.

Side note: It’s funny because as the movie progressed I kept thinking, “This should be a musical” and then like 45 minutes later I realized it HAS been turned into a Broadway musical and I’ve SEEN it. It was sort of unmemorable I guess?

For the most part this movie is all about a determined, smarter-than-she-looks lady out to prove herself highly capable in the scholastic and professional world despite various obstacles. Elle is misjudged and berated simply because she doesn’t come off as a typical Harvard smartie-pants. There are some easy fish-out-of-water jokes, because lol she’s blonde and pretty but trying to read BOOKS?!?!??! but I pay more attention to Elle’s totally awesome put-downs and can-do attitude. Here is a girl I myself would probably judge harshly when I first met her because I myself am basically a snob, so I love that the script spends so much time proving my first impression wrong. She starts off as a caricature of a popular pretty girl, but is quickly established as a multi-dimensional, resourceful, highly capable young woman who just happens to like fashion and parties. I mean fuck it, I could never get into Harvard Law. Elle is goddamn Wonder Woman.

I would probably unabashedly love this movie if not for one huge problematic scene. There’s this crazy exaggerated gay stereotype in one of the courtroom segments, and it’s not very funny, and completely unnecessary. I don’t mind the plot point of “Oh the pool boy’s gay, which is why he’s probably lying about having an affair with Ali Larter”, whatever. But figuring out he’s gay because he recognized Elle’s Prada shoes? And then the “YOU BITCH” thing with the boyfriend? I don’t know, it just seems so dated and out of place in an otherwise open-minded movie. It could be worse I guess, but mostly I just wish that scene wasn’t there.

Anyway Legally Blonde is OTHERWISE pretty great. Maybe just fast-forward through that one part. And remember not to judge people just because they’re pretty and perky. Sometimes, not everyone is a jerk, you know?


Pair This Movie With: I’m not sure, maybe Mean Girls- That’s got self-actualization but in high school. Or Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead has some similar themes. For more light Reese Witherspoon fare, I admit I’m a fan of Just Like Heaven.

Me Without You (2001)

Hey! If you are looking for this week’s Movie Sketch Project entry, it was posted on Wednesday!

Note to self: Stop believing the synopses on netflix disc sleeves. You know they lie to you. But you can be grateful that you didn’t heed Netflix’s advice to “watch Me Without You with your best friend” because this movie sort of makes you want to never have any friends again. Sheesh.

Written and directed by Sandra Goldbacher, Me Without You isn’t the sappy comedy-drama I had expected. This isn’t “BFFL go through trials and tribulations and there are tears but also laughter and their friendship will be stronger at the end because of the problems they’ve faced.” No. Disregard the dvd cover. Growing up as next-door neighbors in 1980’s suburban England, best friends Holly (Michelle Williams) and Marina (Anna Friel) come from very different families but develop a co-dependent relationship that lasts into adulthood. Holly’s crush on Marina’s older brother and Marina’s wild nature plant seeds of discontent during their teenage years, and a double affair with an unethical professor (Kyle MacLachlan) while in college hastens their friendship’s disintegration. Eventually they will destroy each other.

This is definitely an example of expectations coloring my enjoyment of a film. I did not expect such a depressing, uncomfortable movie, so I was frustrated with the final product. It sports great performances from Michelle Williams and Anna Friel (far from her goodie-two-shoes American Girl role in Pushing Daisies, the only place I’d seen her), with the former channeling every pushover bookworm you can’t help but love, and the latter getting sexy and remarkably devious. Kyle MacLachlan shows up for a bit so everyone’s happy. It’s got a kickin’ soundtrack, eclectic 80’s-90’s fashion, cute side-characters, and a fairly sweet (if clumsy) romantic subplot.

Unfortunately, Me Without You suffers script and characterization problems. It hops around different periods in the girls’ lives, spending long amounts of time in some moments and scant minutes in others. The development of their personalities doesn’t feel fully realized because so much has to be skipped. The film posits that parental influence played a large role in both of these women’s development, no big stretch there. Holly is more reserved and studious due to her strict upbringing, but also resentful of the personality forced upon her from a young age and unsure of herself and her desires as she becomes an adult. Marina’s mostly-absent father and beauty-obsessed, laissez-faire mother likely contributed to her passive-aggressive nature and sexual practices. But as the story progresses, Marina is revealed to just be an awful human being with less nuance than I imagine was intended, and Holly is the clear heroine. Despite framing the story around their friendship, it eventually boils down to Holly’s romantic aspirations and Marina’s unhealthy manipulations of those around her. It begins to feel flat and untrue to itself by the end, with Marina becoming more and more unsympathetic and one-dimensional and Holly seemingly without flaw.

This is a movie about two women who will eventually destroy each other. Well-acted, well-shot, and interesting in many ways, but ultimately a more intense and uneven script than I was prepared for.


Pair This Movie With: At several points I was reminded of Jane Campion’s masterful Sweetie, featuring two sisters reminiscent of Holly and Marina.