The Royal Tenenbaums is the third movie Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson wrote together; previously the duo penned Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. All of these movies operate on a basic storytelling theme- the dysfunctional family, the adolescent emerging the cocoon- but within them is an entire world of his own creation. Director/writer Wes Anderson and writer/actor Owen Wilson take a twisted look at a bizarre dysfunctional family of “geniuses” in the film, “The Royal Tenenbaums.” The story is perfectly narrated by Alec Baldwin and is star studded to say the least starring Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston, with Danny Glover, Bill Murray, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Owen Wilson. Moreover they all play their parts perfectly; I would not have changed a thing.
The Royal Tenenbaums is a comedy of reactions more than it is of large events. Most of the internal family conflicts have already happened off-screen, and the film’s large cast of characters operates within Baldwin’s narrative as people full of resentment, regret for each other and even some self-loathing. It all starts with the neglectful, condescending father figure, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) when he is asked to leave the house by his wife (Anjelica Huston). As a result, the three children (Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Luke Wilson) years ago, intentionally forgot their father and the dystopia that results is palpable.
This bohemian family living in metropolitan America, the Tenenbaums are an offbeat and unusual crowd. Royal Tenenbaum and his wife Etheline bring up their three children at home and instill varying degrees of artistic, commercial and sporting success into them. Thus Chas (Stiller) turns out to be a highly successful businessman, running his office from home from a young age, Margot (Paltrow) writes her first play for her 11th birthday, and Richie (Luke Wilson) is a prodigious tennis champion who eventually becomes one of the world’s leading players. When Etheline and Royal separate the family drifts apart: Chas, now a grown-up widower, worries furiously about the safety of his children; Richie, disillusioned with the tennis circuit, travels the world on various cargo ships, and Margot lives a depressed life of extreme secrecy married to psychiatrist Raleigh St. Clair (Murray) basically living in her bathroom.
Royal, a former litigator who was brought down years ago by Chas and sent to prison feels that during his last stage of life he wants to reconnect with his family. He comes up with an outrageous scheme of feigning illness after he’s kicked out of the hotel where he has been living. However, his children don’t buy his change of heart towards them after 17 years of indifference. Margot can’t forgive Royal for never letting her forget that she was adopted. Chas desperately tries to keep him away from the two sons he’s raising alone since the death of his wife in a plane crash. However Royal secretly gets through to the kids by taking them on several prankster adventures.
Richie is the only one who seems to evidence any feelings of closeness for his dad even though the former tennis star is still struggling with the love he secretly harbors for his adopted sister. When Richie finds out that she had an affair with Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), the Tenenbaums’s next door neighbor who is now a novelist and drug addict, he tries to commit suicide. In fact because of her “extreme” secrecy virtually no one knows anything about Margot until Richie and Raleigh St. Clair retain a private investigator to dig into her background and are shocked to find that, among other things, she has been a smoker for over twenty years.
As time passes Margot releases a new play based on her family (which gets mixed critical reviews and runs for about 2 weeks). Raleigh publishes a book on his subject’s condition, Eli checks himself into rehab in North Dakota, and Richie starts a junior tennis program. Royal has a heart attack and dies, with Chas (the one who hates him the most) as the only witness. The family attends his funeral and leaves together after the service.
I can’t say enough about this work. Alec Baldwin’s voice continually soothes one gracefully through the film, even at moments when it would usually be totally inappropriate for him to do so. The perfection continues to the high profile cast of characters, each of whom is so uniquely interesting that any normal sane filmmaker would have given a separate film to each and every one of them rather than throwing them all together in one movie and setting them at each other’s throats. It’s hard to praise this cast enough. Each of the actors totally “gets” their role and vividly portrays all the unique and weird quirks of their characters it becomes almost hard to take wanting to see more of each one of them while at the same time wanting to see more of all the others as well.
Each instant flows together smoothly, even when jumping back and forth between young versions and older ones of the cursed Tenenbaum children. Each character’s entrance is crafted with precision to intentionally seem haphazard. Before we get anywhere, or even meet the adult Tenenbaum children, we already know whom they are. When Stiller’s introduced as Chas, we’re already in his head. Gwyneth may seem mysteriously disturbed when we’re introduced to Margot, but Anderson has already opened the door. Luke Wilson’s dead on as Richie and this is Owen Wilson’s time and he does shine. It’s all there, awkward, disturbing, funny, eccentric, despicable, and beautiful.
The film industry needs more Wes Andersons and Owen Wilsons it would infuse some much needed originality into the products. As for the Tenenbaums, my research indicates that not everyone seemed to get this film, critics sounded confused and many others moviegoers seemed to consider the film too benign (probably because they have been infected with contemporary crap Hollywood is spewing today). The movie is original bold and different all things I look for in a great flick.
I can’t believe Gene Hackman did not win an Oscar for his performance.