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Wednesday
Mar 30 2011

Unsung Heroes: Alec Baldwin in 'The Royal Tenenbaums'

Michael C.here fromSerious Filmfor this week's episode ofUnsung Heroes.When Nathaniel first contacted me about a weekly column I remember him encouraging his contributors to delve into their cinematic obsessions.Well,in that spirit,my cinematic obsessions don't get any more obsessive than my love for this film.I give youThe Royal Tenenbaums.

Alec Baldwin's vocal performance as the Narrator in Wes Anderson'sThe Royal Tenebaumsis one of those things that makes a film lover like myself shake his head and smile,it is just so damned perfect.It is a casting decision that can appear random on paper,but which becomes instantly indelible as soon as it's heard.Of course pretty much every choice inTenenbaumsis dead on – from the Dalmatian mice to the briefly glimpsed posters for Margot's plays - but this choice has always stood out to me as particularly inspired.

For one thing,this was well before Baldwin was racking up the awards as Jack Donaghy so Wes's casting of him as the voice of his film was quite the out-of-the-box choice.He has a fantastic voice,but it doesn't have that storybook quality that you normally associate with narrators.It lacks that soothing gentleness that voices like Morgan Freeman's or Roscoe Lee Brown's (Babe'snarrator) have in spades.Baldwin recounts the story of theTenenbaumsin perfectly neutral tones but still manages to slip the smallest edge into his delivery.An almost imperceptible spin that would have been lacking in another narrator.When,for example,Royal declares that the recent days with his family were probably the happiest of his life,Baldwin is able to deliver the line,

Immediately after making the statement,Royal realized that it was true.

in a way that is somehow both without inflection and overwhelmingly sad.Come to think of it,Baldwin's flat delivery which comes freighted with heavy emotional baggage is the perfect aural equivalent for Wes's visual style.

One of the most pleasant surprises of the past decade or so was watching the metamorphosis of Alec Baldwin from straight-forward leading man to the invaluable character actor who pops up in Scorsese movies and steals every scene not nailed down.As an action hero he was good,but as a supporting player he is priceless.His memorably subtle work as the narrator inTenenbaumsis actually a pretty accurate demarcation line between the two phases of Baldwin's career.It was around that time that he let go of his matinee idol looks and relied instead on his flawless comic timing and apparently bottomless supply of priceless line readings.I would love to see Baldwin go all the way and appear on screen in an Anderson film.His dead pan could go stone face to stone face with any in Wes's stock company.

It is often said that there are so many obstacles to getting a film made,so many opportunities for things to go wrong,that it's a wonder any films get made at all.When a film arrives that is not just good but is an example of every detail going exactly right it is borderline miraculous.The Royal Tenenbaumsis in my view such a film,which is doubly amazing because I can think of no film more richly detailed thanThe Royal Tenenbaums.

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Reader Comments (12)

100% agreed.Sometimes I rewatch Tenenbaums JUST for Baldwin's narration.

March 30,2011 | Unregistered CommenterDominique

From the fight choreography of Rob Roy to the editing of 25th Hour to this,I pretty much agree with all of your unsung hero choices.Great series!

March 30,2011 | Unregistered CommenterThe Jack

I forget he's the narrator,but you're absolutely right - he's so perfect for it.Practically the entire cast give their career-best performances.Hackman and Paltrow are just amazing.Love this film.

March 30,2011 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

So funny!I just had a conversation with a friend who didn't realize that Baldwin was the narrator.I played the prologue for him,and all he had to say was: "That is perfect."

March 30,2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel T

Jack - Thanks so much

March 30,2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

I got goosebumps just reading the line you highlighted.I love this film and I think Hackman is the saddest snub of the entire last decade.It's one of my favorite performances of all time.

March 30,2011 | Unregistered CommenterRax

Completely agree!I've seen it a dozen times,and his narration always catches me by surprise,like finding an unexpected dollar in your pocket.

March 30,2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris

I was really looking forward to writing this one.There is something about his delivery I love so much,but which is difficult to put into words.How great,for example,is the way Baldwin hits the word "mixed"in:

"The play ran for just under two weeks and received mixed reviews."

How does he do that?

March 30,2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

great article and summary of baldwin's career insofar.

March 30,2011 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

Great piece.It baffles me why Baldwin has such a low opinion of his own film career.

March 30,2011 | Unregistered CommenterCity_Of_Lights

Thank you,thank you,thank you.This post may actually cause me to revist the film sometime soon.All I can hear is Baldwin saying "by way of the green line bus"over and over again in my head.Damn near perfect,as is that scene...as is the film!

March 31,2011 | Unregistered CommenterMr.Movie Geek

This was such an inspired choice.He is just so perfect in this role.And it doesn't even register until after the fact since the audience is too busy with the visual style of the film and the fantastic performances.

Again,bravo.

April 7,2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark
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