One of the film world’s favorite eccentrics is about to be in the limelight again, as a new film from director Wes Anderson, The French dispatch, is set to hit theaters in North America on October 22. With Anderson’s last outing just around the corner, now it seems like the time is right to reflect on his 2001 film, The Royal Tenenbaums.
Anderson is renowned for his distinct style of filmmaking. Movie buffs can pull a single frame from almost any Anderson movie and instantly recognize it as one of his shots. Although Rocket in bottle (1996) and Rushmore (1998) received a lot of praise as Anderson kick started his career, it was with ‘Tenenbaum ‘ when Anderson really started to refine his visual and narrative styles. The use of title cards, a chapter-based narrative, and oddly symmetrical framing would all become staples of his style.
The film tells the story of the fictional Tenenbaums, an upper class family living in New York City who acquired their wealth through undisclosed means. The father, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), who admittedly was never the biggest father of his three children, essentially serves as the emotional center of the film. Royal, in his old age, tries to come to terms with his parental traps by re-entering family life at perhaps the most inopportune moment.
Hackman’s performance is brilliant and was also the last big performance he would give before retiring from acting three years later. Not only is he able to deliver Anderson’s tongue-in-cheek humor and cutting-edge dialogue, but the character’s pain and loneliness shines through him as well.
Hackman’s chemistry with his character’s wife, Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Huston), is also unmatched. Etheline acts as the beacon of the family and takes care of her children far more than her husband ever did. Royal’s unique relationship with each of her three children is also a constant point of the film’s plot.
Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller), the eldest of the once gifted Tenenbaum children, is essentially everything his father isn’t. Where Royal was distant and detached from his children, Chas is still present in the lives of his two sons, Ari and Uzi. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), the adopted daughter of the Tenenbaums, always seemed to lead a completely joyless life. This inevitably creates a distance between her and her father. The youngest of the children, Richie (Luke Wilson), was always the most physically gifted, becoming a professional tennis star at a very young age. Royal seems to hold on to Richie because of this and always seemed to have a stronger bond with him than the other two children. Oh, and also Owen Wilson is in this movie playing a perpetually drugged novelist in love with the cowboy aesthetic.
Visually, the film has the quintessential Wes Anderson style. The shots are full of eccentricities and the vivid colors burst to amplify the vintage decor of New York City. While his later films such as Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Grand Hotel Budapest (2014) may have more technically “perfect” shots that legitimately resemble paintings, each image of The Royal Tenenbaums is full of so much character and heart. This is what sets this film apart from the rest of Anderson’s filmography. In no other film does Anderson so heavily deconstruct the characters in relation to the sense of family.
You would be foolish to talk about The Royal Tenenbaums not to mention its soundtrack. With licensed soundtracks being so common in movies in the late 2010s and early 2020s, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when they were still a novelty. Recognizable tracks are littered throughout the film’s just under two hour duration. Songs from classic artists such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel and Van Morrison are among the most memorable. The emphasis on groups from the 1960s and 1970s also fits in perfectly with Anderson’s nostalgic tendencies, as the film sees characters constantly looking to the past throughout the film.
Ultimately, The Royal Tenenbaums is the story of a collection of individuals completely lost for one reason or another. For the Tenenbaum children, they seem to be lost in their young adulthood because of their childhood fame. Through portraying their disturbing life events, Anderson demonstrates the pain of growing up incredibly well.
If you haven’t seen The Royal Tenenbaums now go check it out. If you haven’t seen ANY Wes Anderson movies yet, you should definitely give it a go. Your heart will thank you when you do.