Top 100 American Movie Quotes of the 21st Century: #72

The actor:Owen Wilson
The character:Eli Cash
The film:The Royal Tenenbaums
The quote:“Well, Wildcat was written in a kind of obsolete vernacular. Wildcat. Wildcat. K’pow.”

Eli Cash has a way with words, even if it’s not a way that I’d like to have myself. Anyone who can write and then publicly read aloud the words “flintcraw,” “saddlecock,” “friscalating,” and “dusklight” ought to be checked for a concussion. To his credit, though, “obsolete vernacular” definitely has panache. All vernaculars must become obsolete, which I think dulls the pleasure of the line a little bit, although the singsong quality of the alternating emphases on syllables remains no matter what.

Understanding The Royal Tenenbaums doesn’t require us to go through Eli Cash. I’m not sure he’s even a top-five most go-throughable character in the movie for most people. Royal, the scalawag who takes cheeseburgers to the cemetery and even makes that sound desirable. Margot, whose eyeliner inspired Ozzy Osbourne. Richie, who takes the music of Elliott Smith to its natural conclusion. Chas, who could probably stand to be on the drugs that Eli is on. Henry, who is everything Royal was not. But I find my way through The Royal Tenenbaums through Eli Cash anyway. Anderson seems to delight in writing for him in the same way that sitcom writers delight in writing for the dumbest characters on the show. Yet in a movie that’s filled with lines that evolve from “awkward” to “poignant” in an instant, I think Eli’s got the most evolved line of anybody. “I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum, you know?” he tells Royal in one scene. “It doesn’t mean what it used to, though, does it.”

The Royal Tenenbaums closes itself off about as sunnily as any movie can when the climactic moment involves killing a beagle. There’s some reunion between estranged family members, some snippets of self-realization and understanding which have been a long time coming. (Eli is among that number of people who learn something about themselves in that moment: “I need help.”) But the reason this movie resonates with me so much is not because of this resolution, which I don’t know that we’re really supposed to buy into or weep with. After all, we have yet to reach that point where we see Royal’s grave under that tombstone emblazoned with what might be his most shameless lie. The Royal Tenenbaums, unlike Little Miss Sunshine and a number of other moron imitators to come, wallows in disappointment far more than it wants to convince us that there’s a silver lining or a sunrise. It’s not failure that stands out so much with the Tenenbaum children, who crater in tremendous and public ways after starting out so brilliantly. It’s that feeling of apathy that must come after an impossible cresting, a knowledge that nothing will equal what was so thrilling in the first place. While Margot and Richie in particular struggle with that deep apathy which is nearly identical to despair, Eli is the one still chasing what leads to the apathy in the first place. His TV interview which ends with these comments about obsolete vernaculars and k’pows and “I’m gonna go” is his version of seventy-two unforced errors in a tennis match.

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