The Royal Tenenbaums


It’s rather apropos that writer/director Wes Anderson chose to model this film, his follow-up to Rushmore, after a fictional book that doesn’t exist. Indeed, with the film’s focus on such distinct characters, one could almost see the film working as a modern Dickensian novel. But the film takes on the style of a novel itself, complete with a narrating voiceover and its sections separated by chapters and titles that include inserts of its fictional book. The technique vaguely recalls the whimsical literary inspirations behind some of Powell’s and Pressburger’s work. Like Pressburger, Anderson is a literary mind that knows how to craft stories full of wit, but like Powell he’s a director with a keen visual sense; and Tenenbaums is a film that attempts to meld these two sides together, if not always successfully.

The plot, like many such character driven novels, is complicated if only because of the time it takes to describe those characters. It revolves around the Tenenbaum family where Gene Hackman plays Royal, a man who abandoned his wife and kids many years ago but now wants back in their good graces. Etheline (Anjelica Huston) has moved on, raised the kids, and is considering the proposal of her partner, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) of marriage. Their children are made up of Chas (Ben Stiller), Margot (Gwenyth Paltrow), and Richie (Luke Wilson), as well as a neighbor boy Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) who wishes he was part of the family, but has grown up to be a successful author and mescaline addict.

As a kid, Chas was a business prodigy, but is now a widowed husband and father of two boys, Ari and Uzi, who hasn’t recovered from his wife’s death. Margot was a brilliant playwrite as a kid, but as she’s grown older she’s become even more reserved and secretive, hiding things from her family and even her husband, Raleigh (Bill Murray), who’s a brilliant psychiatrist. Richie was a tennis prodigy, but after a publicized meltdown he went into exile, and has just recently come back, acknowledging his love for his sister, Margot (though she WAS adopted). Except for Chas, the others all have issues with Royal, especially Chas who’s bitter at Royal’s leaving him out of events. But when Royal reveals that he’s dying of cancer, the family reluctantly welcomes him back for several weeks.

Like Rushmore and Anderson’s other films, Tenenbaums is notable for its rather precocious take on characters, but here it’s extended to family dynamics; It’s the kind of writing that can annoy as many as it charms. Personally, I always find myself torn between those extremes. At times, the characters can seem utterly unrealistic, caricatured, unsympathetic and too one-dimensional. It’s almost the type of writing that’s too easy—simply give your characters exaggerated traits, and most of the battle is one. But, at its best, it does carry with it a certain Dickensian effervescence and fun, and Wes certainly doesn’t take to weighing the narrative down with socio-political musings.

The style’s best side is certainly expressed through Anderson’s actors, and Tenenbaums is likely the finest cast he’s ever assembled. Hackman won well deserved praise for his almost understated and nuanced portrayal of Royal. Hackman shows that if you marry exaggeration with subtlety what you get is a complete character, and Royal certainly displays the most evolution of any character in the film, one whose motives are mysterious, perhaps even to him, until his revelations. Hackman neither plays him as a villain or as a man deserving of our infinite sympathy. Like the other characters he’s indeed flawed, but perhaps his flaws, and thus his redemption, resonates deeper than with anyone else.

Hackman’s restraint also seems to carry to the other roles which finds such typically center-stage personalities as Stiller, Luke & Owen Wilson, Paltrow, and Huston equally sharing the screen while never chewing the scenery. All manage to find the humanism in their characters without playing up the easy angles. If they’re less successful than Hackman it’s only because their roles aren’t as complex. That restraint is especially noticeable during the film’s most obviously funny moments, where the actors rarely strive for the cheap and obvious laugh, but almost always maintain a sense of naturalism, allowing the aburdism and irony to arise from the script and events. But as they say in sports, there are teams full of stars, and then there are star teams, and while Tenenbaums is a film full of stars, it’s molded into a star team, likely thanks to the breezy direction of Anderson.

Anderson’s direction is more bold, and Tenenbaum’s warm use of colors and its luxurious setting makes the most out of a film that doesn’t call for spectacular visual displays. But there are some wonderful directorial moments, such as the final long take that sweeps along on the crane, taking in all the members of the family in turn. But Anderson’s direction is also indicative of much of the film in that it’s competent without really being stellar. There’s nothing he does wrong, but there’s nothing he does so right as to make me stand up and take notice. In that sense, the film well misses the mark of its inspirations like Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, the films of Powell and Pressburger, or even Melville’s Les Enfants Terribles.

”Fleetingly enjoyable” might sum up my appreciation for this film. If I had to sum it up in more I would say it’s too light to be taken seriously, but too serious to be taken lightly, and somewhere in its melding of comedy and drama it forgot to be truly funny or tragic. But we do have the effervescence of Anderson and Wilson’s script, the bold but unobtrusiveness of Anderson’s direction, the lovingly idiosyncratic characters, and the excellent ensemble performances to fall back on. Ultimately, The Royal Tenenbaums is a film that does everything well, but nothing exceedingly so; it’s a tasty treat whose pleasure doesn’t outstay its runtime. But But I guess that’s better than leaving a bad taste in your mouth.


About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

2 Responses to The Royal Tenenbaums

  1. Sachi says:

    I’ve only seen this movie once, and I really enjoyed it. The style was pleasant, and I actually sorta felt for the characters in the end, even if I didn’t particularly like them. I’d like the think I had more to say, but it’s been too long since I’ve seen it to offer up any sort of provocative thought to add to this review. But I do think your scoring is fair, and I’d probably give it the same.

  2. David says:

    I enjoyed this movie. I actually enjoy all of Wes Anderson’s movies. Once I saw this movie, I recognized a possible connection to Franny and Zooey, a novel written by J.D. Salinger which contains disillusioned characters who mirror the three Tenenbaum siblings. This review is well-written and enjoyable. I loved the beginning introductions of the Tenenbaum children

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