The Royal Tenenbaums
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 11 January 2002

Recoveries

Families. Most people spend their lives recovering from them. And most artists spend their lives making art out of them. Case in point: Wes Anderson's work to date, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and now, The Royal Tenenbaums. In each film, he has worked through, in increasing detail and with increasing precision, the pains and tribulations that make up families. And lucky for him, it appears that he's found his own sort of spiritual "brother" in Owen Wilson, who has co-written and appeared in all three films. Together, they have dissected, deconstructed, and re-concocted an assortment of too-familiar familial relationships.

Unsurprisingly, this assortment tends to focus on boys and fathers, and the most compelling characters tend to see women as unreachable objects. The Royal Tenenbaums does this again. For all the critical and popular attention being paid to Gwyneth Paltrow's performance as the Tenenbaums' adopted daughter Margot, this is a tale of boys trying not to be men. As such, it's clever and precise, self-conscious enough not to be wholly obnoxious, but treading a borderline from which obnoxiousness is always visible. That's the jokey calculation: the Tenenbaums are on the edge of being tedious, too rich, too New York (though the city is never specified, it's New Yorkish), too affected, too self-absorbed to know that they are any of those things. But the movie knows all, and puts you in the position of knowing all as well.

It's possible to read The Royal Tenenbaums -- so strategic and so smart -- as a smug film. Indeed, it is nothing if not self-conscious. Everything about this movie is strategic, from its selective release schedule (from pre-Xmas limited to early new-year wide) to its stylish frame compositions and snarkily nostalgic soundtrack (including the Beatles, Paul Simon, and Nico). But it's not just strategic; it's also elegant and adroit, conjuring card-boardish, coolly smart-ass characters from whom you might maintain your distance and reserve investment, it also imbues them with vaguely familiar imperfections, so that you are inclined to identify, or at least sympathize, with them.

This distance that is also intimate is initially intriguing, in a glib and immediate way. (It's not so fresh as the first time you saw it, in Bottle Rocket, but you can see the resemblance, and for that you're willing to cut Tenenbaums some slack.) To initiate the safe-seeming distance, the film is set up like it's a book, literally. Pages turn, narrator Alec Baldwin tells the story in a slightly arch tone, and the family is laid out neatly, first as child versions, then adult versions. The child versions are all high-achieving geniuses: brother Richie is a tennis prodigy, brother Chas is a real estate whiz, and Margot is a gifted playwright, produced by age fourteen.

Then, the page turns, and the kids grow up into miserable, early-onset has-beens. Chas has grown up to be a churlish Ben Stiller, mourning the airline crash death of his wife and raising two boys who look like miniature version of him; Richie (Luke Wilson) has quit tennis and run off on an ocean liner cruise, to avoid his relatives; and Margot (Paltrow) now decorates her eyes with racoonish mascara and chain-smokes while soaking in the bathtub, in the apartment she shares with her academic husband, Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray, so inventive in Rushmore, here doing his best with a shell of a part). All emotionally immobilized, the once-gifted kids now mourn the loss of their radiant pasts and hopes for the future. Though Margot and Richie share a longtime, unspoken mutual affection (not quite incestuous, since they're not blood relatives), she's also been involved on and off with their shared childhood friend, the insufferably conceited Eli Cash (Owen Wilson in cowboy hat, fringe jacket, and perpetual smirk).

Reportedly inspired by J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey stories, Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, and Anderson's fuzzy initial ambition to make a Western (hence, perhaps, the cowboy hat), the Tenenbaums' dysfunctions are at once idiosyncratic and stereotypical, outlandish and recognizable. Cartoonish and flat, sketched in deft snippets of dialogue and tidy compositions (Richie lives in a yellow tent in the Tenenbaum living room, and when Margot comes to visit him inside, their tentative utterings of affection is consecrated by a gentle lemony light; Chas and his boys tend to pose as a group, all dressed in red Adidas sweat suits), the family interactions have the feelings of photo albums. They exist as a series of discrete occasions more than as continuous personalities, which is appropriate, given the disjointedness of their senses of themselves.

As grown-ups (or whatever they have become in their thirties), the kids don't talk with one another anymore, or spend much time with their mother, kindly urban archeologist Etheline (Anjelica Huston. And none of them is in touch with disbarred lawyer dad, Royal (Gene Hackman). Royal was kicked out by Etheline years ago and has since lived in a fancy-schmancy hotel, on credit. At the beginning of the film's present action, he decides that he needs to move "home," partly, he tells himself, because he longs for his family connections, however many years too late ("Lord knows I've had my share of infidelities"), and partly because he's run out of money. This doesn't affect his sense of privilege, however, and he behaves as he always has -- with arrogance and an alarming lack of sensitivity -- but Hackman, an ingenious and uncommonly generous performer (whether as Buck Barrow, Popeye Doyle, Little Bill Daggett, or even Sigourney Weaver's wild-eyed paramour in Heartbreakers), makes Royal more bearable than he might have been.

Still, Royal is, as his name suggests, used to getting what he wants, bluffing his way through any situation. Aided by his loyal servant Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), with whom he shares a bizarre history involving accidental shooting, Royal sets out to convince his family that he is dying (in six weeks) of stomach cancer, in hopes that they will take him back. This despite and because of the fact that Etheline is currently becoming interested in her longtime accountant, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), who has in turn finally worked up the nerve to ask for her hand in marriage (at the very moment he does so, he falls into a pit at one of her archeological sites -- it's a nifty bit of comic timing and Glover is grand).

This budding romance is, in fact, the least potent barrier to Royal's return -- his kids are angry with him, blaming him for their various insecurities and miseries. Not only was he a negligent father, he was also dissolute in his dealings wit the kids, stealing stocks from Chas (definitely upsetting to the money-minded tyke) and more than a little abusive in his emotional dealings with all. Still, his return, however selfishly motivated, inspires rethinking, on his part as well as others', and it appears that the entire family needs a little nudge to realize their best selves.

This course of action is cute, and follows Anderson's previous films in granting moral and emotional guidance to the eventually well-meaning patriarch, or at least the male child who stitches together his own story from the threads left dangling by said patriarch. The intricacy and precision of the educational process in The Royal Tenenbaums (for characters and viewers) are surely admirable, but they leave little room for surprises or upsets. The Tenenbaums learn to recover from themselves, and go on. Just like you know they will.  

Directed by:
Wes Anderson

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

Written By:
Wes Anderson
Owen Wilson

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
accompanying
parent or adult
guardian.

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