THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001)

  • Director: Wes Anderson
  • Writers: Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson
  • Starring: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Grant Rosenmeyer, Jonah Meyerson, Stephen Lea Sheppard, Kumar Pallana, Seymour Cassel, and Alec Baldwin
  • Accolades: 2016 BBC Top 100 Films of the 21st Century (#68), shown at 2001 New York Film Festival and 2002 Berlin International Film Festival, 1 Oscar nomination (Best Original Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Tubi App, stream with subscription to Amazon Prime, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Today Wes Anderson represents one of the clearest examples we have of the film criticism term auteur, that is, a director who is very clearly the primary “author” and creative force behind his movies. He has directed ten films so far in his career, and all of them are very particularly and obviously Wes Anderson (even the two he made with stop-motion animation… maybe those most of all, actually). I am a subscriber to a subreddit titled “Accidental Wes Anderson” that is just pictures of buildings that belong in Wes Anderson movies. I can’t think of another director you could do this with quite so easily. The Royal Tenenbaums was Anderson’s third film, after Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, each of which has many fervent admirers today, but it was probably his first major “crossover” hit to receive mainstream attention, and it was the first of his films with the all-star ensemble cast of many of his subsequent efforts. I think it might also win a poll for Anderson’s definitive work, though there are a couple of other strong candidates.

There are so many smaller bits that make up Anderson’s signature style it’s almost hard to describe to someone who hasn’t seen his movies, despite being so distinctive. His films always have a sort of handmade quality, often using miniatures or dollhouse-type cutaway effects, even in live action. He is, more than almost any other filmmaker, a fan of symmetrical compositions, eschewing the “rule of threes” everyone learns in art school, and often uses coordinated color palettes (he is not afraid to match the costumes with the decor). In a subtler way, he also likes these “flat-space” pans and dollies, along with “snap zooms” and other specific camera tricks. More than this, Anderson’s movies all possess, to various degrees, a sort of deadpan style (others might use the term “twee”). They are often very funny, and usually classed at least nominally as comedies, but the characters hardly ever act as if they are actually making a joke. In my experience, his movies either tend to be exactly on your wavelength (as they are usually, but not always, on mine) or you walk out of the theater going, “well, that was… interesting.” If you’re being polite.

Anderson is a Houston native and his first two films were set in Texas, but The Royal Tenenbaums centers around the many weird members of a (sort of) upper class New York family (The New Yorker noted that it feels less like it’s set in New York than a “step-city” or “city-in-law” thereof). It centers around the family’s fall and subsequent vague redemption, not so far from The Magnificent Ambersons, but as a comedy. Gene Hackman plays the family’s scuzzy patriarch, Royal, who leaves the family when his three kids are teenagers when he and his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) separate. At Etheline’s not-so-gentle pushing, each of the children achieves great success at a young age, but then each of them fails, in their own way, to capitalize on that success. Richie (Luke Wilson) became a tennis champion, before a very public on-court self-destruction that seems to have led to him living on a boat. Chas (Ben Stiller) is a math and business genius, who has reacted to his wife’s tragic death in a plane crash by becoming ultra-protective of his two sons (Grant Rosenmeyer and Joshua Meyerson, in matching track-suits), to the point of waking them up in the middle of night for fire drills and then yelling at them when they don’t make it out of the building fast enough. Finally there is Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is adopted (a fact that Royal never fails to mention when introducing her to third parties), a successful playwright who hasn’t put out a new play in years. She is married to “Raleigh St. Clair” (Anderson mainstay Bill Murray, in one of his least showy roles), from whom she hides for hours at a time the bathroom, keeping her smoking habit a secret. She’s also having an affair with newly-successful author and long-time Tenenbaums next-door neighbor, Eli Roth (Owen Wilson, Luke’s brother, who would receive his only career Oscar nomination to date for co-writing the screenplay), who walks around New York city in a cowboy hat and fringes and decorates his walls with completely bizarre paintings.

Upon hearing that Etheline, for the first time in decades, has a new lover, the family accountant (Danny Glover), and having been kicked out of the fancy hotel where he’s been living due to lack of funds, Royal attempts to reconnect with his family by lying and telling them he is dying. Hearing this news, the children return to the original New York brownstone where they grew up, and all the above storylines start crossing over each other. This being a Wes Anderson movie, Royal goes all out to convince them of his ruse, down to bringing in a loyal aging bellboy from the hotel (Seymour Cassel) to pretend to be his doctor. He is one of the broader of all Anderson creations, a complete and utter scoundrel and a compulsive liar, who is somehow sympathetic because there is at least some part of him who does love his children. That he expresses that love by doing things like taking them to watch dogs fight in an alley is sort of his tragedy.

Another word that gets thrown around a lot to describe Anderson movies is “quirky,” and I do think that this can occasionally cross the line into being annoying, but here mostly does not. Despite not having played tennis in years, Richie still wears the same sweat band for most of this movie. Bill Murray has a weird kid (Stephen Lea Sheppard) that he’s conducting “psychological research” on following him around the whole time. There’s a bit of backstory (referred to multiple times) where Margot ran away and lived in “the African wing” of a local museum for a few months, which is straight-up just the plot of The Mixed-Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler. The events are narrated by Alec Baldwin, who is not in the movie otherwise, who we gradually gather is reading from a novel that this movie is apparently based on (there is no such novel). In one scene, where I think the point is that Royal is acting racist to try and bait Henry (Glover’s accountant) into a fight, the insult he throws out is not an actual racial slur, but “Coltrane.” Everything in the whole movie is like this, and whether it’s amazing or exhausting may depend on your viewpoint and general mood.

As a plot description, The Royal Tenenbaums does feel maybe a bit overstuffed, but it is Anderson’s style that elevates the material. It might be easy to lose track of the characters, but we never do, and at least part of the reason is Anderson keeps lines them up and points them out for us. In one early sequence, we watch each of the main characters in the movie finish getting dressed while staring directly into the camera, with their names on screen in Futura font and a strong quartet plays. The image of Paltrow’s character, sullenly smoking on the roof, feels iconic and has become probably the defining image of her career, at least before she started putting out candles designed to smell like her vagina. The movie also has some all-timer needle-drops, including “Hey Jude” (crescendoing as Richie’s falcon disappears over the rooftops), John Lennon, The Clash, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, the Ramones, the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, Erik Satie’s famous piano thingie, that sad music from A Charlie Brown Christmas and, slightly newer, Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay.” The point is, Anderson is not interested in compromising his vision of each and every second of each of his movies, down to getting the exact song he was thinking of and making sure all of the props in a room are color-coordinated.

If The Royal Tenenbaums, and Anderson’s work in general, has a weakness for me, it is generally not that “quirkiness” but rather the way the high level of control he exercises over the movies can occasionally slip over the line and become a death grip. He can’t quite leave things to our imagination, to the point where he stuffs things into the movie that don’t need to be there. He also wants to be absolutely sure that we get how we’re supposed to feel about the events of the movie. Consider the scene where, his ruse having been exposed, Royal is about to leave, and he says to his assembled family that the past few days with them have been the best few days of his life, then pauses a moment before walking away. Anderson can’t quite resist the urge to stick in a line of Baldwin narrating, “In that moment, Royal realized that it was true.” He wants us to be absolutely sure that we get the idea that when Royal says the line he means it as a lie, but then realizes that he really does love his children and regrets leaving them. Honestly we could have gotten all this from Hackman’s great performance in this scene, or brought our own interpretation, but Anderson can’t quite bring himself to risk it.

This sort of in-depth analysis aside, The Royal Tenenbaums has only become even more essential over the years, and having at least a passing familiarity with the work of Wes Anderson becomes more and more essential for people wanting to talk to their movie-loving friends about movies every year. So in summary, I really recommend it if you haven’t seen it, I’m personally a big fan. I also really enjoyed Anderson’s latest film, The French Dispatch, though it has mostly failed to generate a lot of Oscar buzz despite a good amount of critical acclaim. Meanwhile, in October filming apparently finished on his next movie, called Asteroid City, about which almost nothing has been revealed except for the fact that it was filmed on a massive purpose-built set in Spain and was filmed with another completely insane cast who were all kept in the same COVID bubble: Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Tom Hanks, Margot Robbie, Jason Schwartzmann, Scarlett Johansson, Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber, and numerous others. So I’m already looking forward to… whatever that is going to turn out to be.

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