Of all Wes Anderson’s live-action films, The Royal Tenenbaums might be the most Anderson-esque. This is not always to the film’s benefit, as it is also his most self-indulgent, and will likely be off-putting to anyone on the fence about his signature style. Yet for all its stylistic excesses, there’s a sincerity to the film that makes it difficult to hate. It may not be his best work, but it remains a fascinating examination of many of the issues that his films so frequently champion, one well-worth the time of any fervent fans of the off-beat filmmaker.
The cast features some of Anderson’s most eclectic and varied characters ever. Their personalities are communicated as much visually as they are verbally. The patriarch of the family, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman,) can always be seen sporting his trademark cane, even though he doesn’t seem to need it, indicating both his duplicitous manner and his tenuous foothold in the house he temporarily resides in. His children all share a particular listlessness, perhaps the result of their common history as troubled child prodigies, yet each seems thoroughly distinct from the other. Chas, played by Ben Stiller, sports a bright red tracksuit, and has an overwhelmingly aggressive personality to go with it. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow,) always seems to be staring beyond what she is looking at, which makes sense considering her lifelong wanderlust, which has done little to bring her happiness. Then there is Richie (Luke Wilson,) who hides behind an overgrown beard for most of the film, afraid to let his family members know of his troubled state of mind or his romantic feelings for Margot, his adopted sister. These characters are all people of few words, all hiding a long history of pain, self-inflicted and otherwise, and one of the film’s great pleasures is in seeing their relationships grown and develop in a strikingly believable way over time. The Royal Tenenbaums features one of his largest ensemble casts, yet almost every character receives just the right amount of attention to invest the viewer in all of their fates.
At the time during which most of the film takes place, the Tenenbaum family’s ties to one another are tenuous at best, Royal having separated from his wife, Etheline (Angelica Huston), and the children all having taken vastly different paths in life. When Royal reveals that he is terminally ill, he summons all of his children back to the house in which they grew up to spend time with him during his last days. Unbeknownst to them, Royal has an ulterior motive – to reignite the embers of his marriage, and win back a spot in his family. As I have previously mentioned, these characters are not only vividly distinct, but each, in their own way, is nearly impossible to get along with, which is the source of most of the film’s dramatic tension. Each of the children has inherited some of their father’s less savory qualities, and they must come to terms with it just as they come to terms with his rapidly-approaching death. The relationship between fathers and their children is nothing new for Wes Anderson, whose entire body of work at times feels like an elaborate way to work out his own paternal issues. Yet the narrative here is complicated by a number of other participants, such as Henry Sherman (Danny Glover,) the Tenenbaums’ accountant, who proposes to Etheline, and who would likely make a far better husband to her than Royal, who was negligent at best and abusive at worst, ever was. There is also Eli Cash (Owen Wilson,) Richie’s best friend, who has been in a relationship with Margot for some time and who also happens to be the only person with whom Richie has confided his feelings for her. To make matters even more complicated, Margot is also married to the well-meaning yet dull Raleigh St. Clair, played by a perfectly cast, suitably deadpan Bill Murray, who turns in perhaps the best performance in the film. These characters do not exist simply to pad the runtime with useless side plots, but rather to bring out qualities in the Tenenbaums that they would not otherwise express. Henry exposes Royal’s duplicity and immature jealousy, while Eli and Raleigh allow Richie and Margot to work out their feelings for one another. The Royal Tenenbaums may not reach the emotional or comedic heights of Wes Anderson’s other work, but the way Anderson expertly balances all of these plot threads is nonetheless impressive.
Despite all of the disparate story arcs and relationships, it is Royal who ultimately takes center stage in the resulting drama. All roads lead back to him, narratively as well as genetically. As I’ve said, Anderson’s films are no stranger to failed fathers, but Royal is perhaps the hardest to love, being more actively deceptive than his more tame counterparts in other films. He cannot introduce Margot to his friends without referring to her as his “adopted daughter,” favors Richie above his other children, and generally lies as it suits him. He is the lynchpin of the film, a figure whose redemption or condemnation could repair or further destabilize the world around him.
As his name implies, Royal is something of a fallen king, having been ousted from his domain by his own family. His quest to regain his position is not some noble crusade, but rather a self-destructive venture. I will not reveal the ending, but I will say that it mostly succeeds at resolving his story in a satisfying. The bottom line about Royal’s story, and the film in general, is that it’s more an impressive achievement than an emotionally touching experience. It may not be Wes Anderson’s best, but with a filmography as strong as his, that isn’t much of a problem.