The Royal Tenenbaums
review by Gregory Avery, 11 January 2002

Wes Anderson's new film, The Royal Tenenbaums, which he co-wrote with Owen Wilson and which is staged in the same poised, calculated, anticipating manner as Anderson's previous films, Rushmore and Bottle Rocket, concerns the fates and destinies of three grown children, all gifted and all unable to find any lasting success and happiness in their lives, and what happens when they converge, like live turkeys flung from a helicopter aloft, on their family's New York City brownstone home, just as their long-estranged father decides to return home, as well -- possibly because he's dying, possibly not. 

Each of the Tenenbaum offspring have talents which oddly entice our interest. Chas (Ben Stiller) is a business whiz, but he cannot stay under the same roof ever since his wife perished in a plane crash: he keeps engaging his two young sons in fire drills, to see how fast they can evacuate from the building they're living in. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) -- who is adopted, and, in flashbacks, is shown as constantly being introduced as the "adopted daughter" of the family -- is a playwright who can no longer write plays, and spends hours each day in the bathtub watching television. Richie (Luke Wilson) is a star tennis player who stopped being able to play tennis, and in the middle of a championship match, as well. The Tenenbaum matriarch, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), is both an archaeologist and a tax expert, with a study whose shelves alternate between rows of National Geographic magazines and bound tax tables.

When Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) turns up, putting the entire family back together again in one house, it would seem to offer the catalyst to shake everyone out of the various states of ennui into which they had fallen. Or maybe not. What's most odd about the movie is how it gradually becomes less and less apparent  what it's supposed to be about. Anderson and Owen Wilson (who also appears in the film, playing an author with an affectation for Western apparel and an apartment in which some very strange paintings are hung) keep this bauble spinning in the air, always able to find something to keep the spin going, whether it's an attraction by one of the Tenenbaum brothers to Margot; a suicide attempt, the note for which is written after, rather than before, the attempt; the spotted "dalmatian" mice which were bred by one of the prodigious Tenenbaum children, and which are now happily infesting the family abode; or one of the characters wigging-out from substance abuse and, almost as an afterthought, crashing a car, at full speed, into the Tenenbaum home on a day a wedding is to be held there. (The character ends up in a treatment center in North Dakota, a turn of events which, somehow, seems absolutely apropos.).

There is invention, but little transformation, and the even-keel tone of the events, plus the distancing devices used in the narrative -- the film is divided into consecutive chapters, and information is provided through a gently insistent narration spoken on the soundtrack by Alec Baldwin -- makes the film piquant but not exactly absorbing. Gene Hackman plays Royal as an elusive character whom you can never quite get an angle on -- he's sly, but you're not sure what he's being sly about; conniving, but you're not sure if he's pulling a con job or not, or what kind of a con that might be;  he'll suddenly break into street-talk or jive, and sounds like a majordomo while doing so, so it really seems to be coming out of nowhere at you. This makes it even harder to get a perspective on the film, but Hackman gives Royal heart, a lot of it, and his affection for life is unmistakable. The warmth his performance generates suffuses the film.

He does jar his kids -- and Etheline, who, in the nearly two decades Royal has been gone, has become stuck in a neither-here-nor-there relationship with a character played, in a beautifully courtly manner, by Danny Glover -- into having a further existence, but one wonders if that is the movie that Wes Anderson had in mind. The characters, how they live and what they wear, are perfectly realized, so it's not as if Anderson is being obtuse, here. Who would have thought to have Gwyneth Paltrow wear kohl eyeliner and striped knit dresses, elegantly expressing a sense of melancholy with the curve of an Erté figurine, resulting in her best screen performance in years? Or have Owen Wilson put on a neo-Stetson, mauve fringed jacket, and beltless trousers that makes him look, unexpectedly, dashing? Along with Mark Mothersbaugh's original music, there is also an inspired mélange of tunes accompanying the action, ranging from a song from the "Charlie Brown Christmas" TV special, to Elliott Smith, the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday," and several recordings by the deep-toned, highly idiosyncratic, singer Nico.

But the film itself may be an attempt to address matters of family which Anderson has not expressed fully, or may want to express. He's an original filmmaker, and I would certainly like to see him make more films, but he's also one who seems to tackle his subjects, not full-on, but from one side, almost as if he were sneaking up on them. Things can be lost in this manner. "The Royal Tenenbaums" ends up feeling as if it were a completed picture puzzle that is being displayed to us, save but for one piece being kept, behind a folding screen, there, in the Tenenbaum living room.

Directed by:
Wes Anderson

 Gene Hackman
Anjelica Huston
Ben Stiller
Luke Wilson
Gwyneth Paltrow
Danny Glover
Owen Wilson
Bill Murray

Written By:
Wes Anderson
Owen Wilson

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult




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