The Royal Tenenbaums Review


The Royal Tenenbaums is Wes Anderson‘s masterpiece. As much as I admire and enjoy some of the man’s other films, this 2001 gem is unequivocally his most satisfying work to date. It’s easy to simply label it a quirky family dramedy, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Royal Tenenbaums is a look at three prodigy children dealing with the difficult truth that their lives are disappointments. It’s the ultimate portrait of unfulfillment, as almost every character in Anderson’s pitch-perfect ensemble is suffering in some way.

The patriarch of this clan is Royal (Gene Hackman). He’s estranged from the rest of the Tenenbaums for a seemingly endless number of reasons. Etheline (Anjelica Huston), Royal’s ex-wife (unofficially), is in a relationship with Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), a kind widower, who’s ready to take the next step with Etheline. This incenses Royal, who returns to tell Etheline he’s dying of stomach cancer and needs a place where he can live out his last six weeks. Of course, he’s fine, but after six weeks with Etheline, he’s certain he’ll have won her back.

Upon learning their father is dying, the Tenenbaum children return home. Chaz (Ben Stiller), a former financial wizard, is the oldest and deeply resents his father for taking advantage of his money as a minor. He’s also a widower and is insanely overprotective of his two sons, Ari (Grant Rosenmeyer) and Uzi (Jonah Meyerson). Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) was adopted by Royal and Etheline and was an accomplished playwright before she ran away from home to find her real parents and ended up marrying a psychologist, Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray). Ritchie (Luke Wilson), the youngest Tenenbaum child, was a tennis star before having a meltdown on the court, which derailed his career. He’s in love with his adopted sister, and it was her marriage that caused his meltdown. He’s spent the last several years sailing around the world to forget his troubles. The only person he stays in contact with is his childhood best friend, and unofficial Tenenbaum son, the author Eli Cash (Owen Wilson).

With everyone under one roof—including the family butler, Pagoda (Kumar Pallana)—hijinks ensue. It’s scenes like the one in which Royal spends the afternoon getting into trouble around the city with Ari and Uzi that ground The Royal Tenenbaums in comedic territory. But there’s a lot more going on. Some of these people—particularly the three Tenenbaum children—have troubles that cut deep. Their demons drive the action; As Royal tries to reconnect with them, they must decide whether they want to forgive and move on or keep carrying these Royal-inflicted chips on their shoulders.

Anderson’s writing is mostly spot-on. The world he creates is appropriately strange, but unlike, say, The Life Aquatic, this one isn’t completely beyond the realm of what’s possible. Royal is perhaps Anderson’s best character, and Gene Hackman gives what might be his best performance. Ben Stiller isn’t quite as good as he would be playing it straight nine years later in Greenberg, but he hints at having chops stronger than those necessary to play Derek Zoolander and Greg Focker. Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson are also exceptional. They’re the two most openly depressed individuals, and the way they mix this myopic sadness with doses of humanity and vulnerability (especially Wilson as Ritchie) is masterful.

Most filmmakers, I’m sure, would kill to have a film like The Royal Tenenbaums to their name. It’s one of the best the last decade in film had to offer, showing us the honest truth of expectations not met mixed in with wonderful humor, and that’s saying nothing of Anderson’s typically top-notch production values. It’s clear Anderson’s style of filmmaking isn’t for everyone, but even if he’s the antithesis of what you’re looking for in a movie, The Royal Tenenbaums should offer you something. And for Anderson marks like myself, this is your heaven.

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