Seen: On Criterion blu-ray on our projector set-up, from our collection.
A dysfunctional trio of former child geniuses returns to their childhood home for the first time in over a decade. Successful businessman Chas (Ben Stiller), still grieving over the loss of his wife in a plane crash, believes his own house is not safe for him and his two sons. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), a playwright who hasn’t written anything new in years, is unhappy in her marriage to neurologist Raleigh St Clair (Bill Murray) and needs a change. Richie (Luke Wilson), a former pro tennis player now sailing around the world after suffering a breakdown during a high-profile match, returns to hopefully resolve his romantic feelings for Margot, who is adopted so it’s totally not illegal (but maybe frowned upon). While their archaeologist mother, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), is being romanced by her adorable accountant (Danny Glover), their scoundrel of a father, Royal (Gene Hackman)- who has not been invited to family events in years- pays a visit claiming he’s dying of stomach cancer.
Oh goodness, this movie gives me feelings. Artfully fusing kooky, understated humor with heart-wrenching pathos, The Royal Tenenbaums is, for me, the perfect balance of Wes Anderson’s by-now all-too-familiar filmmaking traits. It’s funny and “quirky” without moving too far into caricature, and the characters are incredibly strong. Each actor is able to convey a lot about their person without too much dialogue or showy moments, aided gracefully by an unseen Alec Baldwin as the narrator and a group of really talented child actors for flashback scenes. I really just feel for these characters, all of them (and there are many!), as everyone is just sort of dealing with their own personal tragedy in a wry, self-aware way. While on paper Richie’s Elliot Smith scene is the most affecting, I actually am always moved to tears by one simple exchange towards the end of the film. After Eli (Owen Wilson) crashes his car into the house and kills the dog, and Chas freaks out about his kids and beats up Eli, and in the aftermath he’s just standing there, and he turns to Royal and says, with a slight break in his voice, “I’ve had a rough year, dad.” Royal responds sympathetically, “I know you have, Chassie.” And that’s it, Chas walks back into the house. It’s this completely heart-breaking moment for me, I’m honestly tearing up right now just thinking about it.
Ok sucking it up now. Of course The Royal Tenenbaums is also pretty funny, and has a million little funny jokes and goofy characters and subplots. Raleigh’s unusual patient/research subject Dudley could have his own movie. I love all the fake books created for different characters, especially Eli’s Old Custer (“Well everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t?”). Visually, the aesthetic is perfect. Anderson’s penchant for obsessive details and antique charm is well-suited to the film’s pseudo-New York setting, and I get a little hot and bothered by all the prim, well-organized tableaux. I mean, Chas arranges his suitcases by size. It’s really nice. And the scene transitions featuring chapters from an imagined book of the story are a sweet touch. This film also features self-assigned character costumes, which I always really love. Margot’s collared dress and fur coat, Chas’s red track suit (with matching ones for his sons), Richie’s headband, polo, and tan blazer- these outfits create shields around their wearers as well as a certain kind of comical repetition. It’s one of my favorite Movie things, in general.
I guess I just love everything about this movie. I listen to the soundtrack pretty often, I think it’s tied with The Life Aquatic for favorite Wes Anderson soundtrack. I quote certain lines from it regularly (“I KNOW YOU ASSHOLE!”), and I never really tire of talking about it. It’s the Wes Anderson film I stack all the rest against, and he has yet to top it.
AND YES I know this is just a rich white people problems kind of movie but goddammit if it doesn’t just GET to me every time. The TEARS, man. UGH.
Pair This Movie With: It’s taken me wayyy too long to pick up on this but I finally realized that the Tenenbaums are basically an updated version of JD Salinger’s Glass family so I think it’d be nice to read Nine Stories or Franny & Zooey before watching this movie. Or you should just read them in general, if it’s your kind of thing.