Filmmaker Wes Anderson has always loved making movies that deal with family, family dynamics, and family struggles. They often focus on flawed relationships between brothers, children and their parents, or in the case of the 2001 film “The Royal Tenenbaums” an entire family. This was Anderson’s third movie and the first to incorporate one of his big and unique ensemble casts. It’s also the first film of his to fully utilize his peculiar comedic and visual style. You’ll notice it from the opening frame all the way to the end credits.
The story is about the Tenenbaum family. Royal (Gene Hackman) and Etheline (Anjelica Huston) Tenenbaum had three children who were geniuses at a young age. Chas was a business and financial wizard even before high school. Margot was their adopted daughter who was also a young playwright. Richie was a child tennis prodigy and aspiring artist. Eccentricities aside, the three Tenenbaum children had excelled beyond measure in their particular passions. But all of their promise of future success was dashed upon hearing the news that Royal and Etheline were separating.
The film then bolts ahead several years. The kids have all faced their share of disappointment and heartache. Chas (Ben Stiller) lost his wife in a plane crash and is now obsessed with the safety of his two young sons. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is unhappily married to a neurologist and author (Bill Murray) and she spends six hours a day locked in the bathroom. Richie (Luke Wilson) shocked the world by retiring from tennis at the age of 26 after a meltdown during an important match. Etheline is a successful archaeologist who is being courted by her accountant Henry (Danny Glover). Royal on the other hand hasn’t spoken with this family in several years. He’s lost his law practice and has just been thrown out of the hotel he has lived in for years. To top it off he has found out that he is dying and he decides that it’s time to make amends with his family.
A variety of circumstances brings the Tenenbaum family back together under one roof. All sorts of complicated and strained family dynamics surface. None of the family is happy to see Royal other than Richie who was always the object of his father’s favoritism. Chas hates his father. Margot and Richie have a tension that also involves childhood friend Eli (Owen Wilson). Etheline and Royal have friction particularly over Henry. I could go on and on but you get the point. This is a highly dysfunctional family that was damaged when Royal first left and is now in chaos since he has returned.
On the surface nothing about what I have described sounds funny does it? But remember, this is a Wes Anderson film. Sprinkled in between the various disagreements and peculiarities are the signature bits of dry and often absurd humor that he brings to his pictures. It’s often times seen in a bit of dialogue or some quirky visual flair. Sometimes Anderson slips his humor into the backdrop or in a particular prop or detail. Little quirks like the matching bushy hair and Adidas jumpsuits that Chas and his sons wear. The reappearing beat up cabs from Gypsy Taxi. Every small line from family friend and servant Pagoda (Kumar Pallana). There are so many bits of Anderson flavor and you’ll probably find something new with each viewing.
But as usual, Anderson mixes his humor with a darker side of the story. Royal is truly a despicable man and father. You can’t help but laugh at some of his antics. On the flipside, his character and the consequences of his actions are much darker realities. The film touches on several other gloomier themes such as depression, alienation, suicide, and drug abuse. And then of course there is the aforementioned examination of family. The film takes a look at numerous facets of family life and difficulties which I believe gives the story more weight. As funny as “The Royal Tenenbaums” is, there are layers upon layers of thematic inflections.
And a brief word about the performances. Gene Hackman is fantastic which shouldn’t come as a surprise. He dives right into the role, hamming it up and pulling it back when required. He was a bit reluctant to take the role at first but he is a perfect fit. Everyone else also falls perfectly onto Wes Anderson’s canvas. Whether it’s his reliable favorites such as Murray and the Wilsons, or others such as Paltrow, Glover and Stiller, the characters are a key component to the film and the casting of each role is spot on. Even Alec Baldwin pops up as the unseen narrator.
As you can expect there is an overload of visual style in this picture. If you aren’t keen on Anderson’s odd period style setting and unique camera quirks then you may have a hard time embracing this film. Personally I love the looks of his work. “The Royal Tenenbaums” is a little slow out of the gate but it doesn’t take long before it hits its stride. Things do tidy up a tad too much at the end, but the final scene is priceless and it leaves the movie on just the right note. I couldn’t help but laugh and think to myself that Wes Anderson had done it again.