The Royal Tenenbaums
Screenplay : Wes Anderson & Owen Wilson
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Gene Hackman (Royal Tenenbaum), Anjelica Huston (Etheline Tenenbaum), Ben Stiller (Chas Tenenbaum), Gwyneth Paltrow (Margot Tenenbaum), Luke Wilson (Richie Tenenbaum), Owen Wilson (Eli Cash), Danny Glover (Henry Sherman), Bill Murray (Raleigh St. Clair), Seymour Cassel (Dusty), Kumar Pallana (Pagoda), Alec Baldwin (Narrator), Grant Rosenmeyer (Ari Tenenbaum), Jonah Meyerson (Uzi Tenenbaum)
Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson have a knack for combining deep melancholy with an even deeper optimism. They also have a unique way of looking at brilliant people who are brilliant in unconventional ways. They are fascinated by the complexities of gifted people in a world that doesn't always understand or appreciate them, thus it is not surprising that they would eventually make a film inspired by the stories J.D. Salinger wrote about the Glasses, a family of geniuses who spent their lives battling depression.
Similar themes were evident in their sophomore film, Rushmore (1998), in which Jason Schwartzman played overachieving prep-school student Max Fischer whose overwhelming investment in extracurricular activities and strivings for maturity beyond his years constantly threatened his very chances of graduating. Max was a genius, but not in the way others wanted him to be, and therein lay his problem.
Their third film, The Royal Tenenbaums, is thematically and stylistically similar to Rushmore, but Anderson (who directed and cowrote the script) and Wilson (who cowrote the script and played a role) have expanded their scope, giving us a quirky comedy about an entire family of unhappy geniuses. There's the oldest brother, Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller), who was trading stocks and genetically engineering Dalmatian mice when he was still in middle school and is now a recent widower growing increasingly paranoid about safety issues and protecting his two sons. His younger brother is Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson), a deeply sensitive soul who was a champion tennis player (and Bjorn Borg clone) until he had an apparent break-down during a match at Wimbledon and has spent the last few years sailing around the world. And then there's Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow), an adopted daughter who was writing award-winning plays since high school, but could never seem to find happiness with another person.
The Tenenbaums are all brilliant, but they're also deeply unhappy--they're unsatisfied with their lives, but instead of melancholy coming from the misunderstanding of authority figures from without (ala Max's dilemma in Rushmore), the Tenenbaums are miserable because of tensions within their own troubled family, particularly those created by their crude patriarch, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman). (One of the film's most amusing unstated ironies is that a man of such indelicate temper and lack of refinement could father three brilliant children.) Royal is a lousy man and an even lousier father. When he and his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), separate when the Tenenbaum children are still young, he essentially deserts the family.
Several decades later, old, broke, and having been kicked out of the hotel in which he's lived on credit for the past 22 years, Royal decides it's time to make amends with the family he left behind. "I want my family back," he tells Etheline, to which she responds, "Well, you can't have them!"
But, nevertheless, a series of events conspire to bring the entire Tenenbaum family back together once again in their New York City brownstone, and all the old tensions and misunderstandings that have haunted them their entire lives are brought out into the open--Chas' anger at Royal for leaving them (not to mention stealing bonds out of his safe when he was a kid), Margot's troubled relationships with men (she is currently married to a goofball psychologist played by Bill Murray in full Sigmund Freud regalia, complete with protruding beard and round glasses), and Richie's secret feelings for his adopted sister. Other problems crop up as well, including the increasing despondence of the Tenenbaums' childhood friend, Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), who is now an author and English professor, and the growing relationship between Etheline and the family's accountant, a straight-laced, bow-tied widower named Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), which raises Royal's ire because, legally, he and Etheline were never divorced.
Anderson and Wilson put their own spin on this elaborately dysfunctional family, and the film's most incredible achievement is that it leaves you not only smiling, but with a sense of hope for this screwed-up clan and everyone who gets sucked into their world. They manage to give us a sense of reconciliation without forcing the sentimentality. In some instances, almost nothing is said, although much is communicated. At other times, actions that in any other situation would be bad become acts of general human outreach (it's the only time I can recall feeling so moved by a character handing another character a set of divorce papers or someone feeling grateful for being called a "son of a bitch"). Anderson and Wilson also get little laughs from minor absurdities, such as the fact that, every time someone calls for a cab, the same beat-up taxi bearing the "Gypsy Cab Co." logo inevitably pulls up, regardless of the time, day or night (this is also gives the film a slightly fantastical edge, as if it takes place in some netherworld version of New York City just on the brink of existence).
Of course, part of the reason The Royal Tenenbaums works is the same reason Rushmore worked--its unique style and tone fits the material. As a director, Anderson works in a stylistic mode all his own; his movies simply do not look or sound like anyone else's. Although there's a danger of his getting stuck in a stylistic rut, for now it works wonderfully.
The Royal Tenenbaums is a carefully designed piece of work, calculated through and through to be watched more than once. The film is infused with an eclectic range of music and dominated by intricately detailed sets and slightly exaggerated costumes. Anderson carefully arranges the characters within the widescreen frame to emphasize their extreme distance from each other (sometimes to near-absurd extremes), which makes it all the more effective when they finally share space close to one another. Anderson and Wilson have a distinct ear for the literary, and The Royal Tenenbaums consciously evokes the page, with Alec Baldwin providing a perfectly pitched voice-over narration that has an odd fairy-tale quality and the visual use of chapter pages to divided the narrative. They give us large amounts of information within a minimal amount of time, yet the film never feels rushed. They also play with the tone, giving us comical events one moment, and an oddly beautiful but graphic depiction of an attempted suicide the next.
The real achievement, though, is that the film all feels of one piece, despite the extreme tonal shifts and eclectic mix of the visual and the literary. Anderson and Wilson can mix the absurdly comical with the deeply melancholic because, in the world of their imagination, they are two sides of the same coin. There is something very sad about The Royal Tenenbaums, as it constantly reminds us that giftedness can be as much of a curse as it can be a blessing if the environment in which it grows is corrupted. Yet, at the same time, it always holds out the hope for redemption, that the wounds can be healed and the melancholic can also be funny. Family, like giftedness, is both a blessing a curse, but if a family like the Tenenbaums can at least attempt to reconcile themselves, it leaves hope for everyone else.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick