I don’t love The Royal Tenenbaums. Wes Anderson’s 2001 film purports to be a film adaptation of a novel (typed in Anderson’s beloved Futura typeface) of the same name telling the story of three siblings: Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller), Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson), and their adopted sister, Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow). Their father, Royal Tenenbaum (a brilliant Gene Hackman in a Golden Globe winning performance), abandons the family, and they are raised by their mother, Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Huston). Under her tutelage, the children become extraordinary talents in various fields ranging from mouse genetics and business (Chas), playwriting (Margot), and athletics (Richie).
As adults, they experience profound disappointment. Margot, desperate for the approval of her absent father, marries an older man (Bill Murray) who she routinely cuckolds with Richie’s best friend (Owen Wilson). Richie, most tragically of all, finds himself in love with his adopted sister, and haunted by the memory of the time that they ran away from home and camped out in a museum “sharing a single sleeping bag.” Chas, the most successful Tenenbaum sibling in adulthood, has dedicated his life to the destruction of his father, resulting in his father’s disbarment, imprisonment, and subsequent insolvency. Then he loses his wife tragically in a plane crash. All these disasters conspire to bring the entire Tenenbaum family back to the family home, where they must confront their various sins, indiscretions, misdeeds, and foibles.
The Royal Tenenbaums has a tremendous script, co-written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson. It proves that Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson together have the ability to state truth as only absurdists can. The dialogue is provocative, not only reinforcing themes of family dysfunction, marital strife, emotional distance, and the inability to forgive, but providing amazing moments where characters demonstrate the high standards they hold for everyone except themselves. I particularly like the moment where the adult Chas criticizes his father for not being on his side after having spent a lifetime destroying his father. Unfortunately, for themes (or moments) like these to work without exhausting an audience, they need to be approached with a lighter touch. Most of the cast chooses instead to lean too heavily on the emotional weight of the material, dragging down the truly stellar script.
Among the cast, only three members (Hackman, Murray, and Owen Wilson) really hit the right notes with respect to their particular characters. Their performances are characterized by a lightness, providing an effervescent zing to material otherwise worthy of a dirge. Hackman is actually brilliant here. He even has the ability to infect other cast members with his sensibility, drawing out a playfulness in despair momentarily from fellow cast members like Danny Glover, Anjelica Huston, and Ben Stiller. Other cast members, especially Stiller, Paltrow, and Luke Wilson, miscalculate their performances – showing too much and too little emotion all at once.
Still, Anderson shows his greatness here. He plays with aspect ratios. He places the camera strategically to pick up angles and reactions we would otherwise miss. He holds the camera on the actors and lets them do their work, so that when The Royal Tenenbaums is firing on all thrusters, the movie is breaking our hearts and making us laugh all at once. At other times, Anderson’s camera technique seems to be to simply drop the camera in the corner of the room and allow mice to crawl past it – enforcing visually the sense that these characters were never brilliant; they just appeared that way by accident.
Then, of course, there is the music. The soundtrack features the Stones, John Lennon, Beatles covers, Van Morrison, and Paul Simon. Like all of Anderson’s work, the soundtrack is spectacular, but risks becoming the star.
On the whole, I find The Royal Tenenbaums to be merely above average. It’s an excellent script, undone by lackluster performances (excluding those that I have already praised). It’s not that I wouldn’t recommend The Royal Tenenbaums, it’s that The Royal Tenenbaums doesn’t quite live up to the great film that it could have been.
The Royal Tenenbaums is nonetheless beloved. It was ranked the 159th best film of all time by Empire magazine, and was, by his own account, a formative experience in Alec Baldwin’s film career (encouraging his transition to becoming a more comedic actor and directly influencing his character, Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock). The Royal Tenenbaums finds itself on this list because it was ranked as the best film of the 2000s by Lou Lumenick of The New York Post.
I’ll note that The Royal Tenenbaums features a location that I’ve actually been to (a first for this project). The Tenenbaum’s house, purportedly on Acher Avenue is actually located on Convent Avenue near Sugar Hill in Harlem. If I have any readers on Manhattan island, you can check it out. (Ironically, while I have seen the relatively obscure house, I’ve still not made it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Go figure).
From Out in the Void