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But it is also a film where honest words are rare, where husbands hire private detectives to discover that their wives smoke, where affection that should be obligatory remains unspoken for years between siblings, fathers and daughters. It is a film where the most perfidious and drug-friendly characters—the adopted Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her frequent fuckbuddy Eli Cash (Owen Wilson)—are professional writers.
Anderson's acknowledgement of the slipperiness of language's ability to communicate is complicated, and cemented, by his considerable debt to 20th century letters. The cascade of literary influences leading from Booth Tarkington's punctured idyll to Wes Anderson's cute vortex of betrayal represents, in one way, the tradition of nocuous words we can't help but hear or read. The most obvious pitstop between the two is J.D. Salinger, whose cynical, litotic short stories often revolve around strange, insulting conversations that provoke epiphany. Anderson's appropriation simply forestalls the epiphany. And we can work backwards from Salinger as well: His Seymour Glass was a wunderkind who became a radio celebrity and then collapsed under the pressure of his own aesthetic and spiritual ambitions. (He was, in other words, a more eastern-minded Orson Welles.)
A filmic middle ground may be located in the hyper-literate French director Eric Rohmer, whose essay "For a Talking Cinema" praises the vitality of Ambersons's dialogue, and whose own films find their subtle drama in the friction between intelligent street talk and cowardly inaction. Rohmer's piece discusses the plot-relevant histrionics of a kitchen scene between Tim Holt and Agnes Moorhead (who plays his spinster aunt), where she scolds him for eating too quickly and he teases her for her longstanding crush on the town widower. As in Rohmer's own La Collectioneuse, the characters reveal themselves at great expense; there are no words that are not deeply felt, and the emotional exposition is corrosive.
By the time we reach Tenenbaums, youngest son Richie (Luke Wilson) attempts suicide because of attractions that have come to light through indiscreet conversation. Words are to The Royal Tenenbaums what the horse and carriage are to The Magnificent Ambersons—not entirely useless, but gawkily atavistic, and often more harmful than helpful. Anderson implies, as Welles would never, that growth is capable after this shock of violence brought about by words, but the healing process is largely non-verbal. There are Rolling Stones LPs and yellow pup tents, and montages of Manhattan shenanigans set to Paul Simon. Where Welles was content to let his narratives stew in the hell of meaningless language they'd created for themselves—think of Kane's dying words—Anderson provides relief. His answer to literature is pop culture.