Depending on when you ask, I might say that The Royal Tenenbaums is my favorite movie ever. The third feature directed by Wes Anderson and written by Anderson and Owen Wilson is about as perfect as a movie can get for me.
In case you’ve never seen The Royal Tenenbaums, here’s kind of how it breaks down (spoiler alert – skip ahead 10 paragraphs if you don’t want to know the plot):
The movie opens with an extended introduction to the characters. It’s about a family from a place that looks like New York, but isn’t exactly New York. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and Etheline Tenenbaum (Angelica Huston) had two sons – Richie (Luke Wilson) and Chas (Ben Stiller) – and adopted a daughter, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow). Royal abandoned the family and left Etheline to raise the children on her own.
The children, prodigies in tennis (Richie), playwriting (Margot), and business (Chas), all peaked shortly after Royal left the family, and have been stuck ever since.
The action of the movie takes place 22 years after Royal’s departure. He’s just been kicked out of the fancy hotel where he’s lived for years. He’s broke. As this is taking place, Etheline gets a marriage proposal from her longtime accountant and bridge partner Henry Sherman (Danny Glover).
The family butler, Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), informs Royal of the proposal. Royal doesn’t want her to get married, and cooks up a scheme to maintain the status quo.
Meanwhile, the children’s problems come to a head, one-by-one, and they move back into their old home with Etheline. Chas, on the verge of a crack-up after the death of his wife in a plane crash, brings his two sons with him. Margot leaves her husband, noted neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), but is having an affair with family friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). Richie is the last to arrive (he’s been avoiding Margot because he’s in love with her), and Royal quickly enlists him, his favorite, to convince Etheline to allow him to move back into the house.
Royal’s presence is a major disruption. Royal sees no problem in offering unsolicited advice to his kids, whom he hasn’t seen in many years. He also condescends to Henry in a borderline racist manner. Henry suspects that he’s faking his illness and looks for clues to prove his point. Royal seems to enjoy being back in the midst of his family, even if they don’t all reciprocate.
Finally, Henry finds the proof he’s looking for, and exposes Royal in front of the entire family, which gets him and Kumar kicked out of the house.
Instead of being defeated, Royal experiences the loss that his family must have felt at his leaving them all those years ago, and he becomes determined to win back their love. Hackman’s performance is wildly underrated. He’s marvelous as the scoundrel Royal, keeping us rooting for him even though we maybe shouldn’t.
The third act of the movie finds Royal mending fences and making attempts to reconcile himself to his children, ultimately succeeding in winning them back one-by-one and helping them to get on with their lives. Royal does end up dying, but not before salvaging his family legacy, which is something we should all shoot for.
So, what’s so great about this movie? I’ll restrict myself to just a few reasons.
First, there’s Wes Anderson. His imagination and point-of-view are so seductive to me. He has a child-like way of portraying the worlds of his movies without being childish or simplistic. Far from it. The Royal Tenenbaums, despite all the visual flourishes, is a knowing take on the fallout of broken homes and how important an intact, functioning family is, especially on children. The movie was inspired by his own experiences in a broken home at the insistence of Owen Wilson, whom he met in college.
Anderson has a sophisticated grasp of the history of cinema. He reminds me of Bob Dylan in that he’s this film geek who’s absorbed an encyclopedia’s worth of influences – in interviews, he’s always referencing movies he’s seen that have influenced his movies, and he points out how he’s quoted them in his own movies – but rather than being a copy-cat of his heroes, he actually transcends them by combining their influence with his own vision to make something completely original.
Anderson has cultivated a style that is so uniquely his as to be easily spoofed: the omnipresent Futura font in all of his films, the artful use of montage sequences, an obsessive fascination with the tiniest of details (take inventory of the inside of Richie’s tent for just one example), the fantastic soundtracks, and finally, the quirky characters. I love it all.
Quick side-note: Independent cinema has always been populated by quirky characters, but one might trace the current epidemic of quirkiness in even the most mainstream of movies to the success of Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), all directed by Anderson and co-written with Wilson. It could be said that Anderson and Quentin Tarrantino are the most influential directors of the last 15 years, having spawned a plague of imitators.
In addition to his style, I love his creation of a kind of altnernate universe New York in The Royal Tenenbaums. Anderson is from Texas, and I like to think that he fantasized about New York for years before actually moving and working there, and the version of the city we see in the movie is like the way a kid might have imagined the city having read about it in books and experienced it in movies and TV shows before actually seeing it in person. No actual places are used, and even places that are familiar, like the Waldorf Astoria hotel, are given alternate names (The Lindbergh Palace Hotel). When you take the stylized costuming of the characters, combined with alt.NewYork, you end up with a kind of fairytale story. And it works.
Speaking of New York, another great thing about The Royal Tenenbaums are the literary trappings of the movie. From the first frame, the movie is sold as a kind of adaptation of a book called “The Royal Tenebaums,” as the book is checked out of a library old-school style with the pocket and card and stamp. The scenes are even set up with inserts that are designed to look like the chapter headings of the faux book – the sentence fragments we see are actually the scene headings from the script. In addition to this, the precocity of the children, combined with the New York setting and their upper class interests, are reminiscent of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family. They are similarly eccentric and jacked-up.
Finally, there’s the aforementioned use of montage. Anderson has been compared to Martin Scorcese. In fact, Scorcese himself has called Anderson the next Scorcese, which may strike some as weird. I won’t get into that here, but I would like to compare Anderson’s use of music and montage with Scorcese, who has obviously influenced him (and a whole host of other film makers).
My second favorite moment in The Royal Tenenbaums is when Margot steps off the bus as she’s meeting Richie at the boat docks. He sees her from where he sits, and as she steps down, the action goes to slow-motion and Nico’s “These Days” plays as she moves toward him. Richie’s in love with Margot, and this device perfectly captures that sense of longing that Richie feels for his half-sister.
Compare that scene with a famous moment from Mean Streets, Scorcese’s explosive debut. Johnny Boy’s (Robert DeNiro) entrance to the bar where he and his friends hang out is just as emblematic of Johnny Boy as Anderson’s scene is for what it does. The action is also in slow motion as Johnny Boy enters with a girl on each arm and a silly grin on his face as the opening riff of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” plays. His best friend and protector Charlie (Harvey Keitel) watches him approach (a la Richie Tenenbaum). The lights in the bar bathe them all in blood red (foreshadowing?).
The scenes line up as though Anderson is tipping his cap to the maestro, something he freely admits to doing elsewhere with other directors and other movies. And just as Scorcese has become the master of using motage sequences, juxtaposed with perfect music, to advance his stories, so too has Anderson (my favorite Anderson montage sequence is the opening of Rushmore, where we see all the clubs that Max belongs to).
From its perfect three-act structure to the perfect touch writing to the acting, and, at last, to the directing, The Royal Tenenbaums is a high-point of American movie-making, and it confirmed Wes Anderson’s place as an important director – not just in America, but on the international stage.