America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Review by Dan Geddes
... Royal Tenenbaum
Directed by Wes Anderson
Screenplay by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson
The Royal Tenenbaums is one of those love-it-or-hate-it films. Some people think it’s uproariously funny while others find it too pretentious or quirky or ironic, or perhaps too thinly stretched over its large cast of characters, or lacking in story. I was a bit disappointed by Tenenbaums on first viewing, but upon second viewing found it funnier and amazingly well-crafted. The film communicates so much information that perhaps it is difficult the first time to just sit back and enjoy the ride.
The fact that Tenenbaums is “framed” as a book—opening with a shot of a book called The Royal Tenenbaums being checked out of a library—is perhaps already enough to divide audiences. It’s a self-conscious movie that draws attention to its own conventions. The narrator (Alec Baldwin) continues the movie-as-book framing, if only at the beginning of each “chapter”. However, it is clear that Tenenbaums is riffing on recognizable literary works, especially John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire and J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Both of these books feature large, affluent, multi-talented families, much like the Tenenbaums. When the Tenenbaum children give a press conference, we recall Salinger’s Glass children on “It’s a Wise Child.” When we are told that Chas Tenenbaum’s wife died in a plane crash, but the father, sons, and even the dog survives, we think of the Berry family from Hotel New Hampshire (which, like Tenenbaums, also features brother-sister incest). Margot Tenenbaum’s chopped-off finger and Richie’s loss of sight supply the dismemberment that is nearly de rigueur for a John Irving novel. Chas’ exercise mania is found in Hotel New Hampshire and other Irving novels. The movie’s preoccupation with smoking recalls Salinger’s similar fixation with the habit. Many of the characters in Tenenbaums are writers (or at least have written a book), which recalls the many stories about writers from Salinger, Irving (and others).
The brilliant five minute pre-title sequence introduces the family to the tune of “Hey Jude”. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) was a prominent lawyer, but it’s immediately clear that he’s an unfaithful SOB and a royal asshole. By the time the kids are around 10, he is out of the house, leaving his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), to raise them. She responds with aplomb. All three children are precocious, talented, and maybe even geniuses. She writes a book about them (Family of Geniuses), and they become famous, much like the Glass family.
Chas (Ben Stiller) became a financial wizard early on, even helping his father with business dealings until Royal steals from him. Chas sues his father and wins, even getting Royal disbarred. Chas remains bitter toward his father for his many betrayals against the family. After the death of his wife in the off-scene plane crash, he becomes manically over-protective of his two boys.
Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) became a playwright, even winning a writing grant at the age of 12. Royal always introduced her as his adopted daughter, and she’s maintained a secret smoking habit for over twenty years. She marries writer and neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), and is currently cheating on him with another writer, Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), Richie Tenenbaum’s boyhood friend.
Eli Cash is an English professor who hits literary fame with his purple-prose second novel, Old Custer, the premise of which is that Custer didn’t really die in the battle of Little Big Horn. After he becomes famous he develops a drug addiction.
Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) became a professional tennis star. Ironically, the audience can see that he’s madly in love with Margot, though none of the other characters realize this. Richie is the forgiving son, the soft touch through which Royal weasels his way back into the family. Somehow Richie is always able to forgive Royal and still see him as his father. Chas and Margot have no use for Royal, with Chas especially bitter (Royal even shot a BB pellet into Chas’ hand as a boy).
Etheline’s accountant Henry (Danny Glover) surprises her by asking her to marry him (he’s an author too, of a popular accounting book called Accounting for Everything). Etheline never officially divorced Royal despite his having left 22 years prior. Tenenbaum major domo Pagoda (Kumar Pallana) promptly reports Henry’s proposal to Royal, who schemes for a way to stop the marriage (just out of spite perhaps). Royal lies to Etheline that he is dying of a “pretty bad case of stomach cancer,” an excuse he later uses to worm his way back into the grand, old family townhouse on Archer Avenue, which he had left so many years before. The “house on Archer Avenue” is a unifying focus for the movie.
Royal’s ingratiating himself back into the house takes us through the hilarious first half of the movie. Hackman’s Royal is gloriously oblivious to his own insensitivity, forgetting the name of Chas’ dead wife, trivializing his relationship to his adopted daughter (Margot), and lying to everyone, while smiling and chuckling. Gene Hackman’s performance as Royal Tenenbaum is the motor of the film. Royal is a selfish hedonist grown old, a liar and a cheat whose oiliness is transparent. We can well imagine him as the “successful litigator” the narrator tells us he once was. Royal remains mirthful, and seems to love life, even if he is almost incognizant of the way he uses others for his own ends. Although he was an unfaithful husband, and a largely absentee father, he often took young Richie out on the town, to dogfights and the like. He also tries to breed some recklessness into his grandchildren Ari (Grant Rosenmeyer) and Uzi (Jonah Meyerson). He comes to a belated realization that he missed out on a wonderful life with his family, and resolves to make amends. His attempt is heartfelt, but without sentimentality.
By sketching the lives of so many accomplished characters Tenenbaums is able to suggest a colorful fictional world. Tenenbaums is smart, literate and funny. However, the characters lack depth, and so it is not powerful or moving, and it doesn’t pack an emotional punch. Richie’s suicide attempt is graphically shocking (though still mild compared with the gore seen in many R-rated movies), but he recovers so quickly that it ends up seeming like just some stupid mistake. I think the movie would have been better without it, as it is too jarring. (Anderson may have been aiming for shock value with this suicide, such as in Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”). The suicide attempt seems sudden and unmotivated, despite the supposed intensity of Richie’s love for his adopted sister Margot.
Much of the emotional color of the movie comes from the soundtrack. Wes Anderson uses classic rock songs to conjure up feelings of nostalgia and emotions. He uses what Roger Ebert long ago termed a Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude:
Scene in which soft focus and slow motion are used while a would-be hit song is performed on the sound track and the lovers run through a pastoral setting. Common from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s; replaced in 1980s with the Semi-Obligatory Music Video (q.v.).
There are several such interludes, which are an important part of Anderson’s directing style. The scene of Royal taking Ari and Uzi out on the town for a day of naughtiness (to the tune of “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”) is brilliantly done. It might be the best part of the movie, and it leaves you wanting more. Royal’s exuberance shines forth. The scene of Margot walking toward Richie after getting off the Green Line bus (to the tune of Nico’s “These Days”) works or not depending on whether the song means anything to you (for me, Nico is usually is more campy than moving, so this becomes almost unintentionally funny). The scene where Richie and Royal stand on the roof and the bird Mordecai returns and another song starts up was just one too many times for me. The music’s interruption of the action here was reminiscent of watching a musical. The use of music is fairly obtrusive, so viewers who don’t like this selection of classic rock will find its abundant use in Tenenbaums especially annoying. But since I generally like Anderson’s choice of music, I usually enjoy the Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interludes. Maybe Wes Anderson should make some more music videos for classic rock songs. He was probably the kind of guy who made his friends a lot of “mixed tapes” on cassette back in high school.
Why do I like this movie so much? It is elegant, with little or no extraneous scenes. There are so many character relationships and each is established (as such) in only one or two scenes. Etheline’s relationships with her children are drawn in a few very short scenes, as are her relationships with Royal and Henry. Raleigh St. Clair only has a few scenes with Margot, and at the end we are not sure what their relationship will be. Anderson keeps the scenes short, and so keeps you wanting more.
However, this elliptical style can also feel like a weakness. We never see the Tenenbaum children at their peak, and so we have mainly factual information about them when they all move back into the family townhouse early in the movie.
It’s clear that a lot of time and effort went into the stunning design. The screen is filled with rich detail, so it is fun to watch Tenenbaums on DVD and freeze-frame to check out all that detail in the background. Even backgrounds that are on screen for one or two seconds are filled with the objects of the appropriate character. Anderson uses a lot of primary colors. Tenenbaums seems to have at least a touch of red in nearly in every frame in the movie.
Despite the serous tones and the shocking suicide attempt, Tenenbaums is essentially a comedy, one that self-consciously parodies literary works. Tenenbaums is hilarious, with enough characterization to keep it from becoming purely frivolous or farcical. The characters care about each other (except for Royal). They also have class and manners without being aristocratic about it (like the characters in Rushmore).
Upon first viewing, I rated Tenenbaums lower than Rushmore. But upon subsequent viewings I found Tenenbaums much funnier than the first time, and was amazed at the detail. I look forward to watching it again, ready to pause on all the beautiful shots.
Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson created a gem of a movie. Will they ever collaborate on another screenplay?