#133 The Royal Tenenbaums
(2001, Wes Anderson)
“The last six days have been the best six days of probably my whole life”
There’s a certain breed of indie movie floating around the movie industry for the past few years. A very hazy, almost nostalgic brand of drama with mild comedy elements that is hugely popular with the hipster crowd. If anyone can be considered a major influence on this trend, it’s Mr Wes Anderson, the king of the “hipster movie” directors. His unique, nostalgic, Instagram-filtered brand of cinema became hugely popular in the late nineties and early 2000s, with this movie being one of the bigger successes.
The Royal Tenenbaums is about the Tenenbaum family, a dysfunctional family of misfits who got worse when the father, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) left while the children were still young. The children, Chas, Richie, and adopted daughter Margot, were all considered to be geniuses (Chas with business management, Richie in tennis and Margot in playwriting) but the loss of their father resulted in their lives becoming a mess.
Now adults, Chas (Ben Stiller) is a successful businessman but, following the death of his wife, is obsessed with keeping his children “safe”, refusing to let them do anything remotely dangerous and sheltering them from everything. Richie (Luke Wilson), a former successful tennis player, quit the profession a few years back following a disastrous match where he suffered a total mental breakdown. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), initially successful with her plays, is now depressed and stuck in a loveless marriage with an older man (Bill Murray).
When Royal discovers that his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), is dating her co-worker Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), he concocts a scheme to re-join his family and avoid his wife being “taken”. At the same time, all the children end up back at home too, and the movie chronicles their disastrous attempts to reconcile with one another and face their own personal demons at the same time.
Yes, that’s a lot of plot to take in, but there’s also a lot going on in this movie. It’s a movie that could very easily become convoluted and crushed under the weight of its many ideas, but somehow, Anderson manages to keep it together. It’s a character-driven movie, and there are many characters to drive it, but Anderson does a good job at making them all unique enough that it’s impossible to get lost, and the actors do a fine job of bringing out the finer qualities of all these quirky, dysfunctional people.
You see, every character is completely messed up. Royal is largely a failure who abandoned his family and showed them very little support when they were still together (even dismissing one of Margot’s plays on her birthday), but Hackman makes him oddly likeable; a screw-up whose heart is in the right place, but no capacity to show it properly. Stiller puts in a great comic performance as a character who could easily be annoying. Luke Wilson manages to make a terminally mopey character sympathetic. Paltrow is barely recognisable as the moody, neurotic Margot.
But what holds the movie together is the sheer quirky charm of the whole thing. Everything’s played with a slight wry sense of humour and the hazy wonder that Anderson is known for. It is very much “hipster chic”, with the deliberately stylistic shots and light indie-rock soundtrack, but it never feels pretentious. It manages to balance style and substance effectively, and that’s what makes it so damn good.
I have a few minor gripes. The pseudo-incest subplot felt a little uncomfortable to me, a suicide attempt by one of the characters seems to come out of nowhere (even though the movie does kind of build up to it) and sometimes that soundtrack could become a little tiresome. Bill Murray feels woefully underused, which is a real shame. The movie is also quite prone to leaping around a little plot-wise and has a tendency to sometimes tell instead of showing. For example, many of the opening scenes are just hastily-narrated clips of the family’s history, and it feels a little too rushed.
Overall though, it’s a sweet, quirky little movie that is very entertaining. But then I like “hipster movies”, so maybe my opinion is skewed.
Starring Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover & Bill Murray
Written by Wes Anderson & Owen Wilson
Produced by Wes Anderson, Barry Mendel, Scott Rudin & Owen Wilson
Music by Mark Mothersbaugh
Cinematography by Robert Yeoman
Edited by Dylan Tichenor
Favourite Scene: A long single-shot scene towards the end of the movie which shows every character’s reaction to a series of catastrophes. So well done it hurts.
Scene That Bugged Me: A scene where Richie and Margot admit their love for one another. You’re siblings! Adopted siblings, sure, but stop it!
Watch it if: You like quirky “hipster movies” since this is one of the best
Avoid it if: Instagram filters make your blood boil