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‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ at 20: When Wes Anderson Imagined New York

Wes Anderson’s sprawling comedy-drama “The Royal Tenenbaums,” released 20 years ago this month, tells the story of a family of famed child geniuses, the disappointments and neuroses that define their lives as adults and the estranged father whose (feigned) illness brings them back together, under one roof in Upper Manhattan. It’s Anderson’s only film to date shot entirely in and around New York City, his sole entry in the canon of Gotham cinema, which was so formative to his youth in the Southwest.

“I wanted to live in New York when I was young,” Anderson, a Houston native, confessed to The New York Daily News in 2012. “So many books and plays and movies that I love were set in New York. It really gave me an idea of the city before I had even moved here.”

But that wording — “an idea of the city” — is telling. Anderson wasn’t seeking the authenticity and verisimilitude of a native New Yorker (a Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese, for example); in fact, though “The Royal Tenenbaums” was shot on location, its settings are unrecognizable, and the places it name-checks leave Gothamites scratching their heads. The bulk of the action takes place in the shambling Tenenbaum home on “Archer Avenue,” though daughter Margot has “a private studio in Mockingbird Heights” and patriarch Royal has spent the past several decades at the “Lindbergh Palace Hotel.” A secondary character teaches at “Brooks College”; others travel via the “Green Line Bus” or the “22nd Avenue Express” train; mention is made of the “City Public Archives,” “Maddox Hill Cemetery,” “Little Tokyo,” “Kobe General Hospital,” “the Valenzuela Bridge” and, in a true feat of city-stretching ingenuity, “the 375th St. Y.”

The result is a New York that blurs fact and fiction, a fantasy vision of the city, less reflective of the realities of urban life than the fanciful notions of them ingrained in Anderson’s sensibility. Many an observer has noted the resemblances between the Tenenbaum brood and the Glass family of J.D. Salinger’s short fiction — much of which initially appeared in The New Yorker, a publication whose wry, busy, detailed covers seem no small influence on Anderson’s idiosyncratic visual style. (His most recent film, “The French Dispatch,” takes the influence even further, unspooling like an issue of a New Yorker-style magazine.) Other literary influences from the city abound as well, including the colorful personalities of A.J. Liebling’s profiles, the strained family dynamics of John Cheever’s short stories, and the hotel life of Kay Thompson’s “Eloise” books. In a way, “The Royal Tenenbaums” is the inverse of many New York movies of the 1930s and 1940s — when on-location photography was so rare, and film production so centralized in Hollywood, that ex-New Yorker writers and designers recreated an idealized, fantasy vision of Gotham on backlots and soundstages clear across the country.

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