Picking up from where he left off with Rushmore, Wes Anderson’s third film The Royal Tenenbaums highlights his obsession with quirky, dysfunctional relationships by examining in exquisite detail a family of failed geniuses who are brought back together through unlikely circumstances. Without confining themselves to genre, writing duo Anderson and Owen Wilson are light-handed with both drama and comedy, instead creating an eccentric family that both amuses and fascinates.
The story begins a few decades after the Tenenbaums’ initial glory, as Royal Tenenbaum, the fun loving, yet completely insensitive father is thrown out of his hotel once management discovers that he’s broke. After finding out that his separated wife Etheline has been recently proposed to, he devises a pity scheme of feigning a terminal illness to win back the favor of his wife and children. Here we are reintroduced to the Tenenbaum children: a paranoid businessman obsessed with exercise, a moody playwright with a secret 22-year-long smoking habit, and former tennis pro with a sister complex. They are a broken family, split by jealousy, depression, and disappointment. The offspring are drawn back to their childhood home, shells of their former prodigal selves, wrestling with the idea of accepting back a father who has left them with years of neglect and disappointment.
In truth, the story is not new. We’ve all seen the outcast attempt to win back the family or the betrayal of a scheme exposed. What makes this take fresh is the plot revolves around the characters — instead of a major action or event. Almost a third of the film is character description detailed through narration. Anderson has created a fascinating set of characters, all cast impeccably with a range of talented veterans to respected newcomers. Angelica Houston comforts as the all-knowing elegant matriarch, constantly attending to the needs of her children. Gene Hackman shines as the inadequate, yet somehow lovable schemer bent on getting his family back, by whatever means necessary (“Damnit, I want this family to love me!”). Gwyneth Paltrow, in perhaps her most interesting role, provides a surprisingly versatile straight-faced performance, while Luke Wilson and Ben Stiller banter like real brothers as they are simultaneously both suffering from internal misery. Owen Wilson and Bill Murray occasionally steal the spotlight as drug-addicted western novelist Eli Cash and Margot’s neurologist husband Raleigh St. Clair. It is the quirkiness that fascinates us. Margot oozes coolness and glamour with each empty stare and cigarette drag. Chas commands our attention with a brisk business attitude while still displaying his vulnerabilities as a widower. Ritchie’s forbidden love for Margot plays sweetly off of his general good-naturedness towards everyone.
What is most strange, yet rewarding about this film is its ability to make you both laugh and cry with little change in tone. The ambivalence of emotion allows it to teeter between a heartfelt and daring you to take it seriously. As Royal attempts to reprimand Margot, he says, “You used to be a genius.” Margot calmly replies, in her characteristic deadpan voice, “No I didn’t.” The characters are not trying to be funny, but once their bizarre personalities interact, you can’t help but be amused. At the same time, there are small moments of melancholy that cause our insides to ache. The script is blunt and powerful, using its simplicity to make the maximum impact. We laugh when Royal calls Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) “Coltrane” while daring him to “talk some jive” and our hearts are broken when Chas tearfully admits, “I’ve had a rough year, Dad.”
Anderson’s indie style of filmmaking gives the impression of a low-budget film. A closer look, however, reveals a very delicate attention. His careful use of mise-en-scene to convey a dominant theme of nostalgia for the Tenenbaums’ childhood fame can be seen throughout the film. Objects within the sets are carefully chosen to either represent a character trait and to hark back to another era. Small details like the forgotten toilet paper on the face of perpetual good man Henry Sherman and the embroidered Recovery Area over the heart on the hospital shirt of Ritchie Tenenbaum continue to give us clues into the character’s inner conflict and development. The 60s/70s style warm tinting of the film and Nico, Velvet Underground, and Rolling Stones-filled soundtrack hide the film’s present-day setting. Even the Tenenbaums’ clothes give away their reluctance to leave their heyday, hoping to retain some of their former brilliance. Margot, with her thick eyeliner and glamorous fur coat, still wears the striped polo dresses and plastic hairclips of her youth. Anderson is not heavy-handed, but beautifully subtle, allowing the detail to fade into the background while still cumulatively conveying a larger feeling of time passing on without the Tenenbaums.
Basically, the Tenenbaums are weird and as members of our own respectively weird families, we can relate. Maybe we’re not failed wonder kids or living in a beautiful townhouse in Manhattan, but we all know the feeling of that moment when you look around at your own family and think Who the hell are you people? We all have our issues, no matter our situation. This film, in all its quirks and eccentricities, shows us the true value of accepting your family despite their oddities. In the end, they’re always there. No matter how pathetic or dysfunctional the Tenenbaums become, it is their reluctant ability to stay together that saves them.
Heartwarming and poignant, The Royal Tenenbaums leaves us with a strange, yet comforting, feeling of wistfulness, as if we too were yearning for some lost era. As the Tenenbaums’ childhood friend Eli Cash forlornly states, “I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum.” We do too, Eli. We do too.
This is my absolute favorite part of the film: