The Royal Tenenbaums


With the exception of David Lynch, no other filmmaker commands my interest and anticipation like Wes Anderson, whose latest film is The Royal Tenenbaums. His debut, Bottle Rocket, is one of the great unseen films, a hilarious yet tender tale of listless rich kids who try to rob banks. 1998’s Rushmore was easily the best film of that very strong year and is probably one of the ten best films of the 90s.

The pressure and anticipation of his follow-up, the all-star ensemble The Royal Tenenbaums, was enormous, but with it Anderson not only silenced the naysayers, he established himself as the brightest young director in America (and I am considering P.T. Anderson). The Royal Tenenbaums is completely different from Rushmore but shares Rushmore’s attention to detail, love of obscure pop music, and warped, unique sense of humor. Those expecting the joyous symphony of Rushmore will probably be disappointed—Tenenbaums is more serious, slower, and definitely sadder.

The film begins with a ten-minute narrated sequence (a nice wink to The Magnificent Ambersons) about the Tenenbaums. They are, or at least were, a family of geniuses: the mother Etheline (Anjelica Houston), a bright vibrant woman, and each child—Chas (Ben Stiller), Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Richie (Luke Wilson)—exceptionally gifted in a distinguished field. The weak link was the father Royal (Gene Hackman), a strangely likable lout and borderline sociopath who introduces Margot as his adopted daughter, dises her play, shoots Chas with a BB gun, and blames the kids for the split between him and Etheline. The only one he is remotely interested in or nice to is Richie. Needless to say, this takes its toll on the kids, even after Royal is excommunicated from the family.

When we catch up with the Tenenbaums 22 years later, they are in a sorry state. Margot is married to a much older neurologist, Raleigh St. Claire (Bill Murray) and seems clinically depressed. Chas lost his wife to a plane crash and is now obsessed with the security of his kids. Richie, a former tennis star, suffered a breakdown on the court and has been traveling around the world on an ocean liner. Only the family friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) is successful as a western novelist, albeit one with a serious drug problem. The family is removed and alienated, and most have not spoken to Royal in several years, but when he comes back with the news that he is dying and wants to set things right, the family begrudgingly gives him one more chance.

Anderson plays all his strengths to their full capacity in this film. The attention to detail is giddily obsessive. From the covers of Raleigh and Eli’s books to the almost comic-strip uniformity of each character’s recurring outfit, Anderson gives the film an almost unparalleled richness with his layered tapestry of minutia. The script by Anderson and Owen Wilson is remarkable, balancing between broad absurdity and kookiness, and the sort of truly elegiac pathos usually reserved for James L. Brooks or Mike Nichols.

However much Anderson’s fingerprints are on the film and its success, the performances of the actors cannot be overlooked or underestimated. Gene Hackman is completely remarkable, easing into a part written especially for him with a grace and comfort amazing even for a veteran. Anjelica Houston and Danny Glover are also outstanding. Among the kids, Paltrow, Stiller, and Wilson not only shine in their respective roles, but gel convincingly as a family. Owen Wilson almost steals the show as the pompous, yet sweet Eli. The cinematography, editing, and especially soundtrack (featuring songs by Nico, The Ramones, and Nick Drake) are all wonderful, and, if anything, are even more ambitious and epic than those of Rushmore.

The Royal Tenenbaums, like Mulholland Drive, is unlike any other movie out there. And like Lynch, Anderson has a trademark style that no one even comes close to mimicking. We are lucky, too, because I have a feeling Anderson, now only 32, is going to get better.