The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

by Lucas Hilderbrand


On the Town

Wes Anderson, like so many now-New Yorkers (myself included), grew up far away from the city, and so came to an idealized vision of the metropolis and its sophisticated, complicated residents through literature and movies. His new movie, The Royal Tenenbaums offers up clan of overeducated, old-money, East Coast eccentrics who occupy a house far too grand to have survived the ‘80s and ‘90s real estate booms without having been turned into multiple condominiums. These magnificent Tenenbaums, however, barely survive the ‘00s.

Anderson constructs his film as equal parts homage to Orson Welles and literary time, with a prologue, chapters, and epilogue, title pages and omniscient narrator (a soothingly husky-voiced Alec Baldwin). The prologue introduces the family dynamic and individual characters’ histories: father Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is a bit of a ne’er-do-well, and Etheline (Angelica Houston) is the accomplished matriarch. Their kids, like J. D. Salinger’s Franny, Zooey, and Seymour Glass, are wise, precocious overachievers. Chas develops a designer breed of Dalmatian mice before becoming a teenaged real estate and bond tycoon. Young Richie is an international tennis champion and aspiring artist, although, as the narrator informs us, he “failed to develop as a painter.” And Margot, the adopted daughter prematurely prone to excessive use of eyeliner, is a produced and grant-winning playwright by the time she’s 14. One day, Etheline asks Royal to leave the house and the family. Chas, Richie, and Margot wonder aloud if this turn of events is their fault; Royal explains that he has made “certain sacrifices” on account of having children, and that his departure is their mother’s decision.

cover art

The Royal Tenenbaums

Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Gene Hackman, Angelica Houston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover, Bill Murray

(Touchstone Pictures)
US theatrical: 14 Dec 2001 (Limited release)

The plot proper begins 22 years after all this. Etheline is a respected archeologist with a sweet suitor in her accountant, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), but Royal and the children have all lost their way. Turned out of his hotel due to insurmountable debt, Royal weasels his way back into the family home by claiming that he has stomach cancer. A red Adidas running suit-clad Chas (grown up into Ben Stiller) has recently lost his wife in a plane crash, and now repeatedly drills his two curly-haired sons on safety, specifically in escaping their home in the event of a fire. When he determines that sprinklers must be installed in his apartment, he and the boys also return to the roost during renovations. At the same time, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) has not written a play in years and spends her days in the bathtub, watching TV and secretly smoking. Jealous that Chas has moved home, she leaves her husband, psychologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), and moves back to her old room. She also reignites an affair with writer Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), who grew up across the street and “always wanted to be a Tenenbaum.” Richie (Luke Wilson), who a year before blew a major tennis final (in a deliriously funny sequence), has been cruising around the world on a ship. The one dutiful child, he comes home to visit his ailing father.

The Royal Tenenbaums is Anderson’s departure from home and a new beginning. It is his first film not made in his home state of Texas. It also represents his impressive development as an artist, while retaining the signatures that made his first two films so distinctive. In Bottle Rocket, Anderson brilliantly crafted comic lunacy with irrational characters who hatch harebrained schemes at a screwball pace, adding a quirky romance on the side. With Rushmore, he further developed his signature absurd characters, focusing on prep school student Max Fischer’s (Jason Schwartzman) extracurricular activities, but also captured adolescent heartbreak and offered a subtle critique of class differences (the bravely romantic Max being decidedly less wealthy than his classmates).

The Royal Tenenbaums certainly builds on Rushmore‘s nuanced contradictions, as it is also a sad comedy. Any of its misguided children could be Max 20 years on. The scale of the film—as well as the fantastic world in which it takes place—has expanded from Anderson’s prior work. Whereas the characters in Bottle Rocket and Rushmore put on elaborate schemes that backfire with trivialized effects (no one really gets hurt—they are just made to look like fools), the consequences of the characters’ self-destructive mistakes in The Royal Tenenbaums—from romantic disasters to drug abuse to professional and personal suicide attempts—are much darker.

Anderson’s film has a cruel streak—the audience does not laugh affectionately with the Tenenbaums but at them. As idiosyncratic as each of the characters are, the ideal cast’s performances never become caricature. Hackman, notably, captures Royal’s desperate duplicity, and Paltrow, playing her first ensemble character (as opposed to leading lady) since Hard Eight, changes her posture to convey Margot’s withdrawal and anxiety.

With its emphasis on characters over events—though a lot does happens—The Royal Tenenbaums occasionally makes the audience, much like Eli, want to be part of the family, in spite of their neuroses and flaws. The house, with hot pink walls, winding staircases, and rooms decorated to match the characters who inhabit them (an office for Chas, painted murals for Richie) gives the mansion a homey but also enchanting feel. Outside of the house, this mythical New York has a similar preposterous splendor—extending to 375th St. and 22nd Avenue.

Anderson’s take on New York, to quote Woody Allen’s introductory voice-over from Manhattan, “Romanticize[s] it all out of proportion.” The comedic scenarios invoke critiques of child prodigy exploitation and burnout, manipulative family relations—as Royal does his damnedest to get back into the family—and the facade of affluence and normalcy put on by this downwardly mobile clan. But these issues never seem to pierce through the veneer of Anderson’s charmed city and society. The Royal Tenenbaums is populated by the kind of folks who seemed so witty and savvy in Edith Wharton’s and Salinger’s books, Woody Allen’s ‘70s and ‘80s films, even Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. Indeed, it is The Royal Tenenbaums‘s hyperbole—in its characterizations, ornate sets, idiosyncratic logics, and, ultimately, its classic everything-comes-together ending—that both makes the fantasy so lively and reveals the self-delusions at its foundation.

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