The Royal Tenenbaums

| December 27, 2001

There were hints of it in Wes Anderson’s first feature, the spare but engaging Bottle Rocket, and Rushmore’s second act revealed a sweet, wistful heart beneath its quirky surface. But Anderson’s latest film, The Royal Tenenbaums, is his first to truly embrace the quiet, melancholy mood that his two previous films showed flashes of, and it fills his off-kilter universe with an emotional resonance those earlier efforts lacked.
Presented like a book and feeling even more like a play, The Royal Tenenbaums is imbued throughout with a low-key tone of sadness and pain, but it never gets depressing. The characters are so specifically realized, and each of the actors perfectly suited to play them, that the somewhat morose feel of the story might have weighed down a production less in love with its own environment. But Anderson’s flamboyant style and obvious attachment to the subject matter and atmosphere remain intact and prevent the story from getting crushed under its own weight. Like his first two movies, Anderson co-wrote the screenplay, about an estranged father of a family of geniuses who attempts to get back into his children’s lives after a prolonged absence, with Owen Wilson. The pair are so attuned to each other’s sensibilities, and have cast actors equally equipped to portray the oddball characters, that barely a note rings untrue.
The cast is superb, from Gene Hackman in a career-best performance as father Royal, all the way down to Anderson regular Kumar (stealing nearly every scene he’s in) as Pagoda, the Tenenbaum family servant who aids Royal in his scheme to win back his family. Portraying the once-celebrated children, now fully grown and scarred with emotional traumas from a childhood spent as the son of their careless, magnificent bastard of a father, Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow come through admirably. Paltrow plays skillfully against type as a somber, emotionally insecure young woman crushed by her father’s indifference (she is the family’s lone adopted member, a point that Royal made sure to mention when introducing her) as a child; Wilson trades his everyman joviality for a bit of wounded reticence, and his expressive eyes and hangdog expression are the perfect depiction of the film’s subdued feelings; only Stiller sinks into his familiar mannerisms as perhaps the most overtly off-the-wall character, a widower still crushed by his wife’s recent death and now obsessed with protecting his two children (scene-stealers themselves) from any and all possible dangers. Bill Murray, fresh off his triumph in Anderson’s Rushmore, has a much smaller role this time around, but his wit and delivery liven up some of the film’s most tangential scenes.
The film opens with a superb, rapid-fire montage introducing us to each member of the Tenenbaum family, with Alec Baldwin delivering voice-over narration. Luke Wilson’s Richie was a star tennis player until a spectacularly funny breakdown at a national tournament; Stiller’s Chaz was a financial wiz by age 12 but couldn’t escape from his father, who once inexplicably shot him with a bb gun during a childhood game; and Paltrow’s Marge was a young playwright who shared a connection with Richie but grew up to flit between countless sexual encounters, desperately seeking the approval her father never gave her. Owen Wilson has a role as Eli, a childhood neighbor who always wished he were a part of the Tenenbaum clan and continued to send his press clippings and college report cards to Ethel Tenenbaum, the mother of the clan, played warmly by Anjelica Huston.
The detail heaped upon each character is immense, and may, to detractors, appear a bit superficial. But although there are a lot of people to get to know and only two hours in which to do so, the characters are so fully realized and affectionately rendered by the director and cast that they all succeed as three-dimensional portrayals. And, like in Rushmore, the quirks are there; just look at Danny Glover’s bow-tied, purple-suited landlord Henry, who with his white goatee and kind, dignified manner is the film’s most together character. His proposal to Etheline sets the plot in motion. Anderson and Owen Wilson share a wonderful sense of humor and it shines in this picture, but just as the somber tone is tempered by the brilliant dialogue and absurdly pertinent comic situations (all of the humor is character based and not in any way at the expense of, or superfluous to, the plot), the hurt behind the humor, and the depth of emotion felt by the family members, is never overwhelmed by the laughs. The film is grounded in some real emotion, and by the final act, it gets downright touching.
Visually, Anderson is a master. His frames are loaded with detail and perfectly constructed, from color to props to placement; his shots are impeccable and lend the film an air of artistry not available to most current filmmakers. His choice of music accentuates the melancholy tone of the film (from The Velvet Underground to The Rolling Stones), and his ability to layer so much information into just one shot is astonishing.
The Royal Tenenbaums is a big film, but one with a small, deeply felt emotional center. A lot of the situations are bizarre, and the characters are not your run-of-the-mill creations, but they all ring true and the pain through which they are navigating comes through loud and clear. When all is said and done, The Royal Tenenbaums is not only the funniest movie of the year, but also the sharpest, and most unexpectedly tender depiction of a modern family to come along in some time. The Lord of the Rings might be the biggest movie of this holiday season, but The Royal Tenenbaums is the best.

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