Strange and signature: The Royal Tenenbaums 15 years later

When both film-lovers and casual movie-goers alike think of Wes Anderson, there is a certain air of twee warmth that floods their minds. Soft pastel palettes, aesthetically-pleasing symmetry, quirky and generally likable characters (save a few sinister antagonists) are the bones of Anderson’s films; using these with a clever mastery, he bottles nostalgia for a time you weren’t alive for, or never will be, and a place that you’ve never been to, or never will be, even one that doesn’t even exist. Amidst this well-crafted foreign familiarity, Anderson’s films also conjure thoughts of grandeur, of the extraordinary — just consider his titles: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenenbaums. 

That last one; there’s something stick-out-y about it. Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums cross-stitches familial ties with an absurdist P.O.V., knitting an oddball tale that swells with sadness and sincerity in kind. It also celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, a marker worthy of a retrospective review.

The third film in director-producer-writer-every other film role you can hyphenate Wes Anderson’s repertoire, The Royal Tenenbaums centers on the dysfunctional titular family and their equally off-kilter lives, loves and losses. The family makes the film — and they are nothing short of esoteric. All three Tenenbaum children are prodigies of some field in which they’ve made an esteemed name for themselves, and the father, the Mr. Royal Tenenbaum (a flawless Gene Hackman), is an ill-tempered ex-lawyer and overall downtrodden dad who has less-than-great news to deliver: he has been forcibly evicted from his hotel-home and claims he has been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Unfortunately, slumps of sadness have taken over Royal’s children, too.

There’s money man Chas (Ben Stiller), who has been prosperous in international finance since before most children mastered multiplication. After a travel-related trauma that killed his wife, Chas spirals into paranoia, looming over his twin boys, Ari and Uzi Tenenbaum, with fierce protection. Then comes the mysterious Margot, infamous amongst her family (whom she was actually adopted by, making her the only non-blood Tenenbaum, a fact Royal incessantly points out) for her secrecy, sulky disposition and general apathy. She, like her siblings, is almost inhumanly talented, as she’s a gifted playwright, though she rarely finds drive to write. Entangled in an affair with her longtime family friend Eli (Owen Wilson), Margot further shrouds herself from her husband, neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), and from the world around her. Rounding out the crew is former tennis star Richie, who has a public love for extra-peppered Blood Marys and a private love for Margot, likely due to one excursion in which the pair deliberately disappeared and hid out in the African wing of the city museum. Following a massive televised breakdown that catalyzed the end of his professional athletic career, Richie disappeared again, this time finding solace on the sea — on an ocean liner, to be exact, where he downs his beloved tomato-y beverage and confides in Eli, his best friend, that he is deeply in love with Margot. Oh, and there’s also the eccentric Etheline (Anjelica Huston), mother to the Tenenbaum clan and estranged wife to Royal, who has caught the eye of her accountant, Henry (Danny Glover). Like the rest of the Tenenbaums, Ethel has her fair share of oddities, and attempts to navigate through them with a semblance of clarity.

It’s unbelievable when you think about it-which I don’t believe you’re entirely meant to in Anderon’s films; they encourage you to suspend your disbelief — and Anderson uses (and continues to do so in his recent films) the absurdity to his advantage. If it’s “out there,” Anderson pulls it in and utilizes it to push his narrative, craft his characters and undercut the film’s feel with an intangible je ne sais quoi. Throughout the film’s run, there are expected ups and downs, driven in equal parts by Royal’s desire to feel and act like -and be- a parent to his children and his children’s desires to mend the messes in their lives. Admittedly, without Wes Anderson’s sharp and smart screenplay and his deftness in directing, the film would seem all too dreary. Unrequited love, terminal illnesses, the possibility of death and squandered dreams? It hardly seems “ha-ha” worthy, but The Royal Tenenbaums finds its sparkle in its charming humor. There’s a wealth of one-liners –“Don’t listen to me, I’m on mescaline” – and visual quirks -the Chas/Uzi/Ari tracksuits – that lend themselves over to the funny. Beneath the heartbreaks and the mini triumphs the Tenenbaums experience (and the gut-wrenching, gorgeous sequences that accompany them), there are sprinkles of perfectly-timed comedy that bolster the film further into excellence.

I don’t believe it’s fair to say that either Wes Anderson or The Royal Tenenbaums have gotten better or worse with time, or have changed in any fundamental way over the last decade and a half; they have been masterful from the start and maintain a consistent magnetism, and you’re made more aware of that when repeat-viewing this film. Looking back on a film that is intensely weird, both wonderfully written and wonderfully brought into existence, is always a treat. At the risk of sounding cliche, The Royal Tenenbaums truly is timeless –a beautifully bizarre classic.



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