The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Review

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Director: Wes Anderson

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In taking much inspiration from Orson Welles’s wonderful The Magnificent Ambersons, Wes Anderson’s breakthrough essential New York film is a terrific entre par excellence for everyone’s favorite master of quirky indie movie-making. I thought this panorama of an old New York aristocratic family was brilliant in that the city plays as much a role as in other great New York films like Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

Alec Baldwin serves as narrator in a J.D. Salinger-esque manner. The prestige of the Tenenbaum family lies in their big, opulent New York home, and inside we are treated to a whimsical glimpse of each family member. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is the patriarch who has left home and is living in a hotel, though he never actually divorced his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston). All three of their adult children are eccentrics and neurotics: Chas (Ben Stiller) is the financier and real estate magnate, Richie (Luke Wilson) was once a tennis champion, and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the jaded and emotionally distant adopted daughter who not-so-secretly smokes cigarettes. We also meet a circus of extent characters like Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), Margot’s distant and pretentious husband, Eli Cash (Owen Wilson, co-writer of the film with Wes Anderson), a neighbor who ironically writes unsuccessful Western novels, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), an accountant who falls in love with Etheline, and a myriad of Wes Anderson’s usual cast of actors.

The central plot concerns the fate of Royal as he is kicked out of his hotel and fakes a bout with cancer in order to become closer with his family. However, in doing so, he must learn to let them go while recognizing that he cannot make up for lost time. He gives his blessing for Henry and Etheline to married in order for her to be happy, he saves Chas’s sons while Eli comes crashing into the side of the building while high on mescaline, and he helps Chas release himself from such tight control over his sons, he encourages Margot to publish a play about the family, supports Eli checking into rehab, watches as Richie starts teaching junior tennis –and in the end, Royal dies of a heart attack. Only now, he is a beloved head of family. His epitaph reads: “Died tragically rescuing his family from the wreckage of a destroyed sinking battleship.”

What is it that holds a family together? Is a family merely a legal classification? Or is there something deeper which operates by means of push and pull between growth, distance, proximity, and love? What does it mean to lead a group of loved ones? How do we find true reconciliation for past mishaps?

What is redemptive about The Royal Tenebaums is that Royal, despite years of moral failings, decides at the end of his life that it is never too late to start setting his family straight. His heart is truly in the right place, even though he is not a textbook, picture-perfect hero. And perhaps we can all see a bit of Royal Tenenbaum in ourselves. While the weight of our culture has all-too often been degraded by the effects of globalized mass culture, Wes Anderson helps us to slow down and see vague traces of what might have once been called beautiful still waiting to be discovered out there. His well-orchestrated, self-conscious method of story-telling stands in stark contrast to the oft bleak and despairing mood that has captured contemporary movie-making. While as of this date The Grand Budapest Hotel remains my personal favorite Wes Anderson film, The Royal Tenenbaums is also simply superb.

1 thought on “The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Review

  1. There may be nothing more thought-provoking in a family drama that how a family is either united or reunited by a most dramatically overwhelming chain of events. An excellent cast, and especially thanks to Gene Hackman, can certainly help enrich our consensus of family values. Thanks for this review.

    Liked by 2 people

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