The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Director: Wes Anderson
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 from everyone’s favorite master of all things quirky and indie in contemporary movie-making. I thought this panorama of an old New York aristocratic family was brilliant. In many ways, the city plays as much a role as any of the characters, reminiscent of other great New York films like Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979).
Alec Baldwin serves as the J.D. Salinger-esque narrator. He introduces us to the Tenenbaums, a prominent family whose prestige lies in their big, opulent New York home. 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 officially 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) is a former 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 characters played by Wes Anderson’s now-familiar cast of actors.
The central plot concerns the fate of Royal as he is kicked out of his hotel and then proceeds to fake a cancer diagnosis in order to grow closer to his estranged family. However, in doing so, he must learn to let them go while recognizing that he cannot make up for lost time. It is a melancholic realization. He gives his blessing for Henry and Etheline to be married, he saves Chas’s sons while Eli comes crashing into the side of the building while high on mescaline, he helps Chas release himself from tight control over his sons, he encourages Margot to publish a play about the family, supports Eli when checking into rehab, watches as Richie starts teaching junior tennis –and in the end, Royal dies of a heart attack. Only now, is he beloved by his 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 in the end that it is never too late to begin setting his house in order. His heart is truly in the right place, even though he is not a textbook 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 slow down and see vague traces of rarefied beauty still waiting to be discovered. Anderson’s 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 of Wes Anderson’s films, The Royal Tenenbaums is simply superb.