The Royal Tenenbaums
Director: Wes Anderson
review by Charles Glicksman
Most films shot in New York city are best remembered for scenes which highlight the cityís larger
than life aesthetic. From the Staypuft Marshmallow Manís Godzilla-like destruction of gotham in
Ghostbusters, to the romantic notion of meeting a true love for the first time on top of the
Empire State Building (An Affair to Remember, Sleepless in Seattle), New York City is
that rarest of film locations that seconds as a main character. The big apple is an amalgam of the
hustle and bustle of a metropolis while evoking deeply personal stories that seem universal to all
eight million people aboard Manhattan island.
Contrary to this trend, the New York depicted in Wes Andersonís
delightfully quirky, dysfunctional family saga, The Royal Tenenbaums, is completely fictional
and bears little resemblance to the city depicted in other productions. Movies in New York city have
become synonymous with names like Woody, Scorsese, Spike Lee and Mike Nichols. In these cinematic
standards, the city is a forceful presence, every bit as resonant and affective as a human character.
Not so with Andersonís new vehicle. Andersonís New York bears no resemblance to Scorseseís mean
streets or Allenís obsessional, neurotic love affair with eight million possibilities. Andersonís New
York is a magical menagerie of posh urbanism and stylistic entrapment, at once a slice of a
developmentally arrested family, isolated from the yellow cabs and rushed atmosphere of the big
The Royal Tenenbaums is indelibly a Wes Anderson film. With his
two previous efforts (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore; both co-written with Owen Wilson),
Anderson has developed into a filmmaker with a singular vision. His heroes are vulnerable to trauma
and heartache. Characters do not necessarily climb out of their despair, but usually learn to live
with their faults. Anderson is an obsessively complicated filmmaker, using intricate sets and
production designs to describe characters in ways that words always seem to fall short.
The plot follows Royal Tenenbaum, a garish patriarch who wants a second
chance at playing husband and father to the family he so easily discarded 17 years ago. He falsely
claims he is dying, expecting his family to take him back. His older children are ambivalent to his
announcement of his upcoming death. Either they donít believe him or they donít really care.
Gene Hackman (inexplicably left off the nominations for Best Actor)
portrays Tenenbaum in a performance of comedic manipulation and unintentional sentimentality. Royal
needs his children, but damned if he will ever admit it. Instead, his actions paved the way for their
painful development from childhood to adult dysfuntion.
As children, the Tenenbaums were lauded for their talents and labeled
Ďgeniusesí by the neighborhood elite. As adults, we discover that all have been terribly affected by
Royal's neglect; as they are unable to deal with the stresses of life. Regardless of how smart they
were, it could not save them from the pain and disconnectedness brought upon by a pitiless father.
There is Chas (Ben Stiller in a brilliantly understated performance), a business
guru before his tenth birthday, with a fondness for wearing running suits, appearing sadder and more
depressed than his attire. Richie (Luke Wilson in a career making performance) was a Bjorn Borg-like
tennis prodigy, who blew a gasket in a championship match, opting to sail the world while keeping his
distance from his family and his overwhelming feelings for his stepsister Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow).
The only adoptee of the tribe (Royal introduces her at parties by stating "This is my adopted
daughter Margot") she was a child playwright, who received her most scathing review from her
father ("The characters werenít believable") She was 10. Paltrow plays Margot as a sullen,
depressive, chain-smoking princess, while Stiller embodies the pain and torment of a paranoid father.
He not only lost his wife in a plane accident, but also his father, who is still, very much alive.
Ultimately, this film belongs to Luke Wilson, and Hackman. Wilson has been in some
forgettable films (Home Fries, Blue Streak), but he sinks his teeth into this part with
understated intensity, never able to handle his emotions, which eventually leads to an impulsive
decision. But this is really Hackmanís film and he continues to amaze even into his seventies. His
turn as Royal Tenenbaum evokes the wish that parents have to pass a competency exam before having
children, while applauding his efforts for attempting a reconciliation. He is a contradictory
character of the highest order. We love him yet want to kill him.
Anderson is a major talent who is shining brighter and brighter with each picture.
While his sets have the feel of contrived boxes of painstakingly crafted art pieces, he lets his
actors loose within these parameters. The screenplay is a clever affair, depicting a painful portrait
of a troubled family.
Anderson, like David Lynch or the Coen Brothers, utilise quirky, peripheral
characters who add volumes without sacrificing style or substance. Thereís Pagoda (Kumar Pallana),
the family butler and Royalís personal confidant. How they met is a typical Andersonian device,
devastatingly amusing and fantastically moronic. How about Bill Murray, who seems so comfortable
playing in Andersonís magical worlds, as a neuroscientist, creating a theory based on one teenage
Andersonís magnificent visions are complemented by the musical companions which
grace his poetic scenes. Collaborating with Mark Mothersbaugh for the third time, the soundtrack is a
mixture of alternative underground despair (Velvet Underground, Nico), blistering three-chord punk
(The Ramones, The Clash) and Motherbaughs stylish compositions of controlled idiosyncrasy.
Few directors have the ability to accurately utilize music to convey the perfect
blend of mood and understatement. When it works, music can supercede its place in the background and
deliver a statement every bit as powerful as the spoken word. In Scorseseís Goodfellas, his
use of Eric Claptonís coda to ĎLaylaí encapsulated the demise of the Henry Hill gang, an aching
reminder that nothing would ever be the same again. Lawrence Kasdanís The Big Chill, opened
with the Rolling Stoneís ĎYou Canít Always Get What You Wantí, as a metaphor for unrealised
potential, during a funeral for a successful suicide. These moments (along with countless others) are
indelibly imprinted into our consciousness; one scene ultimately incomplete without the accompanying
music. In Rushmore, Anderson used this technique to perfection by blending forgotten 1960s and
1970s era rock nuggets as a means of expressing the timelessness of his story. I was cheering when
Hackman teaches his grandsons the meaning of life through shoplifting, throwing water balloons at
passing automobiles and crossing against traffic, while Simon and Garfunkalís 'Me and Julio Down by
the Schoolyard' resonates like an old friend.
Itís hard to laugh at dysfunction, especially when the source is your own father.
But really, isnít this supposed to be funny? What isnít comically absurd about how some parents treat
their children. This absurdity is converted into a comedy of basic faults and how to appreciate and
acknowledge that second chances are not always granted. The Tenenbaum children donít care as much if
Royal gets it right, but that he just gets it.
Guide to the Movies
compiled by Tony
Lee editor of Pigasus Press
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