Thursday Editor’s Pick: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

by on October 6, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Oct 12 at 8:30* [Program & Tix]
*Director Wes Anderson and members of the cast and crew in-person


Wildcat was written in a kind of obsolete vernacular…


Sure, some people don’t think he’s ever bettered Bottle Rocket, others prefer Max Fisher’s Rushmore shenanigans, even odd ducks The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited have their champions (Matt Zoller Seitz is stating his case for the former Wednesday, Oct 12 at 92YTribeca), and some have had just about enough of this so-called “hipster whimsy” (and its ensuing Halloween costumes)… but at the end of the day Tenenbaums stands as the most sublime melding of Anderson’s peculiar humor, piquant aestheticism, and poignant melancholy.


And the 10-year reunion of the Tenenbaum clan sure sounds like a soiree.


Ed Gonzalez for Slant:

Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums unfolds like a regal fairy tale. A king has been thrust from his family’s kingdom and hopes to claw his way back. Anderson’s respect for individualism means carefully isolating one Tenenbaum from the other; all are colorful and singular composites of a remarkable higher order, dignified by the director’s stunning attention to detail (like the family’s weather-beaten banner that waves gently atop their townhouse). The Royal Tenenbaums is a film of rare beauty, alive with humanity and crippling sadness. It earns its joy because Anderson can make an otherwise ancient cliché crackle as if it were new. Take Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), who is tactless but whose love for his family is absolute; he’s the distant father who’ll conspire for your love but earns it with a simple kiss on the cheek: “Thank you my sweet boy.” At its simplest, Anderson’s masterpiece becomes a paean to second chances.


J. Hoberman for The Village Voice:

Anderson’s admiration for Preston Sturges and Jean Renoir is evident in his ambitious orchestration of the Tenenbaum ensemble. But the movie also has the homey, familiar quality of the Sunday funnies. Richie is always in sweatband and shades, just as Margot rarely appears without her fur coat and Henry is never without his bow tie—all the Tenenbaums, as well as their wannabe Eli, have comic-strip trademarks and are usually operating under the spell of an idée fixe. Etheline, who keeps a pencil handy in her hair, is clearly the adult (and Huston’s performance appears the most nuanced) because she is the lone character who ever seems focused on more than one emotion.


The romantic pathos of Rushmore is lacking here, and Anderson overcompensates with a whimsical eccentricity that some may find arch. But beneath the layers of cleverness is a vein of melancholy—often signalled by the sound of wistful folk-rock in a world of overbright colors—as the Tenenbaums try to turn back the hands of time. The main romance is filial: the mutual desire for acceptance and forgiveness between parent and child. There’s nothing sadder than Royal’s belated attempt to treat Margot to an ice cream sundae in what looks like a shabby version of Rumpelmayer’s—unless it’s the final reconciliation between Royal and Chas. The most tender running gag is the imaginary, lost Manhattan Anderson has cobbled out of locations from the Lower East Side to Inwood (with forays into at least two other boroughs and several local islands).


The Onion AV Club tours the film’s locales:


Manohla Dargis for LA Weekly:

It happens to all of us, the fall from grace. Much depends on what happens next, naturally, but much depends on how you remember it — as comedy, tragedy or, as Anderson has, both. The world of The Royal Tenenbaums initially seems as unreal and at times almost as precious as that inside a glass paperweight. And it‘s clear from the sheer verve — the giddiness, even — with which he films the children’s early years that Anderson is as comfortable tucked inside his meticulousness as the Tenenbaums are tucked inside the family home — he‘s more comfortable in a world of his own making than with the world beyond. But, like Chas, Richie and Margot, he’s starting to shake things up. By the time the children are grown, Anderson has loosened his style, almost as if he, too, were finally free of the constraints of so much early perfection. The framing seems less fastidious, the camera movements more gestural, while the vapor of self-congratulation that perfumed the Tenenbaums‘ childhood has been blown away by the truth of adult lives in all their pain and new-found grace. In a film that verges on greatness, it is a sign of terrific faith, as well as of Anderson’s promise as a director, that when one of the characters in The Royal Tenenbaums wears hospital pajamas after a detour into grief, the words over his heart read ”recovery area.“



Nicolas Rapold for Reverse Shot (upon naming the film the 15th Best of the Decade):

In a decade when American studios seemed to discontinue serious dramas, or cynically relegate them to their independent divisions, one of the most poignant and heartrending stories of family came from a filmmaker blindly decried as a purveyor of dollhouse quirk and precocity. While wavelets of European and Asian filmmakers continued to respond to Hollywood with various counter-aesthetics of long takes, temps mort, and empirical narratives, Wes Anderson lavished attention on the individuality of his characters and their surroundings with the elaborate production design of an old Hollywood musical and the connoisseurship of a subsequent admiring French New Waver (plus the camera-angle tendencies of a Joseph Cornell box).


Anderson’s micromanaged design, which he foregrounds so much more than most filmmakers, all but guarantees (for this viewer at least) that his movies fully emerge only upon the second viewing. And still, with the third and fourth look, it remains a surprise when this clever, funny, exuberant film subsides into a suicide attempt—the darker second half seems all but forgotten by those who suggest that Anderson’s movies will age (or phase in and out) about as well as an Adidas tracksuit, and that his style is a decadent baroque collapsing under the weight of its filigrees. But it’s there that the film’s ache sets in, something over and above the melancholy, and still lingering through the mad chaos of its conclusion.


The Royal Tenenbaums, with its unambiguous expenditure of effort and steadfast vision, of course was the tipping point for Anderson’s observers, launching a wearisome cycle of demographically targeted backlashes and entrenched criticism. And perhaps, just as with the career of two hyperdesigning predecessors, the Coen brothers, themselves prey to hot-and-cold responses to fussed-over style and comedic poses, persistence wins out over clichés about second and third acts. But even if Anderson had stopped with The Royal Tenenbaums, he’d have earned his place as a vital voice and an American original.



Matt Zoller Seitz conducted a landmark study of Anderson and his influence for Moving Image Source – including video essays. Part 1 covers Charles Schulz, Orson Welles and François Truffaut; Part 2 covers Martin Scorsese, Richard Lester, and Mike Nichols; Part 3 covers Hal Ashby; Part 4 covers J.D. Salinger.


And Part 5 is an annotated version of the prologue to The Royal Tenenbaums:


Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” exists on a knife edge between comedy and sadness. There are big laughs, and then quiet moments when we’re touched. Sometimes we grin at the movie’s deadpan audacity. The film doesn’t want us to feel just one set of emotions. It’s the story of a family who at times could have been created by P.G. Wodehouse, and at other times by John Irving. And it’s proof that Anderson and his writing partner, the actor Owen Wilson, have a gift of cockeyed genius.


Trying to understand the way this flywheel comedy tugs at the heartstrings, I reflected that eccentricity often masks deep loneliness. All the Tenenbaums are islands entire of themselves. Consider that Margot has been a secret smoker since she was 12. Why bother? Nobody else in the family cares, and when they discover her deception they hardly notice. Her secrecy was part of her own strategy to stand outside the family, to have something that was her own.


One of the pleasures of the movie is the way it keeps us a little uncertain about how we should be reacting. It’s like a guy who seems to be putting you on, and then suddenly reveals himself as sincere, so you’re stranded out there with an inappropriate smirk. You can see this quality on screen in a lot of Owen Wilson’s roles–in the half-kidding, half-serious way he finds out just how far he can push people. The movie’s strategy of doubling back on its own emotions works mostly through the dialogue. Consider a sort of brilliant dinner-table conversation where Royal tells the family he has cancer, they clearly don’t believe him (or care), he says he wants to get to know them before he dies, the bitter Chas says he’s not interested in that, and Royal pulls out all the stops by suggesting they visit their grandmother. Now watch how it works. Chas and Richie haven’t seen her since they were 6. Margot says piteously that she has never met her. Royal responds not with sympathy but with a slap at her adopted status: “She wasn’t your real grandmother.” See how his appeal turns on a dime into a cruel put-down?



Peter Bogdanovich introduces the published screenplay:

The Royal Tenenbaums grew directly out of Anderson’s desire to make a film in New York City. He had moved here after the release of the wonderful second film Anderson and Wilson wrote, Rushmore (1998). I remember Wes telling me at the time that he wanted to do a movie about an eccentric family of New Yorkers living in a large house somewhere in Manhattan. I suggested a couple of plays or movies for him to check out, and he spent a long time alone and with Owen (who acted in a couple of movies in the meantime) – getting familiar with New York and stories of families in this city. The disparate influences on the final work might be apparent to some: JD Salinger’s Glass family, Kaufman and Hart, Dawn Powell and Orson Welles.


But The Royal Tenenbaums is very much its own thing, and stands out as an exceptionally gifted, quirky and original director’s triumphant third work – his best so far. Perhaps the device of the book and the narrator which Anderson and Wilson adopted for The Royal Tenenbaums creates a more easily describable style but that’s actually only a technique. It does, however, in some ways help to define the indirect, elliptical, yet often emotionally resonant Anderson touch. I’m especially glad that Wes is so young, because now we all have a great many Wes Anderson pictures to look forward to. He brings a particular quality to his people, a kind of warmth and humanity seen from a wickedly humorous perspective that is at the same time compassionate. Because his movies are exceedingly likeable, with a kind of knowing innocence, it could be easy to miss the underlying gravity, and perhaps the avant-garde will find Anderson’s pictures too accessible.



Jonathan Romney for Sight & Sound:

In most current American mainstream cinema, it’s hard to detect much of what you might call a ‘signature’ – an unmistakable authorial stamp. But in his new film The Royal Tenenbaums, director Wes Anderson uses a stylistic device that could well serve as a running gag on the very notion of signature. The film is crammed with sardonic intertitle-like asides to the viewer, packaged in a distinctive typographic style – a sober, straight-edged sans serif. It features in the opening and closing credits and throughout the film in the form of superimposed captions that tell us we are on the second floor of the Tenenbaum family mansion, or witnessing one character’s case history, or simply seeing a glove altered (caption: ‘Alteration of glove’). But the same font also runs through the film’s fictional world, as if programmed into its molecular structure: on the frontages of hospitals and museums, outside shipping offices, even on the little hood that spells out the name of the family’s pet falcon Mordecai. To a designer’s eye, this may well be a standard typeface, but Anderson makes it so much his own it ought really to be named ‘Royal Tenenbaum’.


How, then, to place this magnificent oddity of a film? You could almost see it as a sort of 60s record album itself. If Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, with its aspirations to encyclopedic knowledge of the world and to apocalyptic grandeur, offers itself as the 21st-century movie-brat generation’s Sergeant Pepper, then I like to think of The Royal Tenenbaums – spacier, flip, drunk on its own heady facetiousness – as the screen equivalent of Smile, Brian Wilson’s never completed 1967 folly for the Beach Boys.



Kent Jones for the Criterion Collection:

The Royal Tenenbaums is certainly Anderson’s grandest movie, and if it feels like an epic at 110 minutes, it’s probably because there’s so much territory covered in each briskly paced scene and densely packed ‘Scope shot-visual, geographical, gestural, and emotional. The setting is a timeless version of greater New York (as opposed to a timeless version of greater Houston), but it’s far from a tourist’s inventory of the Big Apple. This is a Manhattan of faded, seedy grandeur, where Holden Caulfield might cross paths with the unlucky hustler of Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle.” It’s true that Tenenbaums is filled to the brim with high-flown comic inventions, like Owen Wilson’s J. Peterman-ish all-star novelist Eli Cash, or the outlandish worldwide wanderings of Paltrow’s Margot. It’s also true that it’s shorter on the kind of detail work that endeared Rushmore to its fans, like that brief yet indelible shot of Sara Tanaka’s Margaret Yang at the science fair, delicately craning her neck to look for Max, or the barely glimpsed name “Thayer” printed with early adolescent awkwardness on Max’s Latin reinstatement petition. But then this is a different film, even more melancholy than its predecessor, with a different configuration of characters. And it’s about a different kind of longing, too: to “restore” a family that was never that happy in the first place to a glory that never was. It’s funny that some critics have gotten tripped up on the fact that none of the Tenenbaum children appear to be part of the same family. Because that’s pretty much the point. Anderson is tackling a difficult, sad (and sadly familiar) dynamic here: a loving but fundamentally inattentive matriarch, a long-gone father who hides behind layers of guff and nonsense from old western novels (“Look at that old grizzly bear,” he says of Glover’s beyond-elegant suitor), and three overgrown children with nothing but the memory of their own glory days for company. They’ve each built their own genius-stricken identity (Stiller’s the “preternaturally” talented financial whiz kid, Paltrow’s the playwright, and Luke Wilson’s the tennis star), in failed efforts to define themselves outside of their unfathomable but inescapable family.


The film proudly wears its inspirations on its sleeve: Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, Salinger’s Glass family stories, the old New Yorker of Ross and Shawn, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler, the Velvet Underground, a tinge of Fitzgerald, a dash of Philip Barry. But it speaks in its own singular voice: at once tender and probing, mindful of New York and its special mixture of grit and glory, but confident enough to mold it into a big, faded magic playhouse, a limitless extension of the Tenenbaum family’s private universe. The spectacle of father and children contriving to return home and make amends (“Why are they allowed to do that?” asks a childishly disappointed Paltrow, when Etheline tells her that Stiller’s Chas is moving his family back into the Tenenbaum mansion) deepens with each new viewing. The movie only gets funnier (Royal and Chas’ screaming match inside the games closet, Royal’s outlaw excursions with his grandsons, to whom he offers the following condolence for the accidental death of their mother: “I’m sorry for your loss-your mother was a terribly attractive woman”), more moving (Richie and Margot’s secret tryst in his tent as they listen to “She Smiled Sweetly” and “Ruby Tuesday” on an old record player, every interaction between Etheline and Glover’s Henry, Royal taking Margot out for ice cream over the melancholy strains of Vince Guaraldi’s immortal “Charlie Brown Christmas” theme), and more sheerly delightful (Owen Wilson’s Eli quietly bugging out on national television). The word epiphany gets thrown around a lot, but it should be reserved for moments like the flight of Richie’s falcon over the New York skyline, bearing away the lost glory of the Tenenbaums; or Margot, armored in her fur coat and striped cotton dress, her eyes shrouded in mascara, her hair pushed back with a barrette like a 12-year-old’s, her mouth creased in an adolescent half-smile, approaching Richie to the tune of Nico’s evanescent “These Days.” Or the moment near the end of the film when Stiller’s Chas, a mountain of hyped-up, burning anger in a red tracksuit throughout the movie, suddenly switches emotional gears for a moment of final parting. I’ve never seen moments like these in any other movie.



Listen to Anderson discuss the film on NPR’s Fresh Air here. Director David O. Russell confessed that he has seen The Royal Tenenbaums (which he didn’t originally “get”) over 50 times to Spike Jonze at the Museum of the Moving Image.


Anderson in interview with Gavin Smith, for Film Comment (Nov/Dec 2001):

After Rushmore, what drew you to the idea of The Royal Tenenbaums?

Owen and I had been talking about doing a western for a while. And then I started coming to New York more and more, and had this idea that I was going to do a New York movie with Luke [Wilson]. I was thinking of it in black and white and I knew there would be this Nico song in it, “These Days.” And then I had the Ravel String Quartet in F Major, and a sequence to go with it when we see each of the characters names, and they’re all looking into the camera. One of the inspirations was Louis Malle’s Le Feu follet, which features the same Erik Satie music that plays in Owen’s characters house. And I was going to the U.S. Open a lot and I had this thing with Luke’s meltdown on the tennis court, but I didn’t know where that was going. Another thing was that I wanted to do this family history thing, inspired by The Magnificent Ambersons. And I wrote that, just by itself, not knowing anything was coming next. At first I wrote it with nobody in it, it was just a tour of the house, and then the kids became a part of it and it started to take shape. And a certain kind of movie that I really like is the romantic-feeling house movie, you know, family intrigues in a house, like Rules of the Game-it’s all in a house and there are all these interactions. So I wanted to do a movie with different groups of characters all in one house together, like a pressure cooker. After Rushmore I started coming up with characters, and Owen and I spent a month in Dallas, and a month in New York, and we were struggling a lot to figure out what it was. Somewhere along the way this Royal character started to form and that’s when the story started to happen.


Was there a pivotal moment where it all fell into place?
I would say the moment was the scene where Royal says that he’s dying, he’s not dying, he is dying. I actually got the idea from a memory I have of an episode of The Rockford Files [laughs]. It was Royal’s desire to get back with his family. I started thinking of the Luke Wilson tennis player character as trying to bring the family back together, but in the end, it’s the father that really does. Luke’s character has a warmth towards everyone which nobody else has, his feelings towards the family are less conflicted, but the one who made stuff happen was the most complicated and conflicted, the father. What’s interesting about Royal is that though he’s a liar, he’s the only character who seems to have an emotional understanding of the people around him–every– body else is sealed in their own bubble.


What’s striking about your films, and rare these days, is the combination of comedy and really intense emotion: grief, loss, and melancholy.
I was trying to make a movie in which there was the possibility that people could die. In the other movies, one thing you knew is that none of these characters could die. In Bottle Rocket they never mention it. In Rushmore, they mention it. In most movies, people die. I was hoping to catch up with those other films. Why do your films have these really fast passages that are densely informational? Well, the story unfolds so slowly. There’s not as much incident as maybe there should be. There’s so much detail and most people couldn’t care less about that. If you look at the beginning of Jules and Jim, that whole narration of their relationship is so fast. There’s as much inspiration from that as there is from Ambersons. It also doesn’t exist without Scorsese, whose way of cutting influences everyone, I think. His stuff is more documentary; my stuff is much more staged, more of an arrangement of things. I’ve never had a single dissolve in my movies, except for a fade-out at the end of Bottle Rocket. It’s all hard cuts and a lot of jump cuts. That’s what I’m drawn to. In Rushmore and this, I tried to avoid doing any opticals. In Rushmore, we did curtains, and in this we did chapters, anything at all to avoid a transition that involves sending you to a lab.


– Compiled by Brynn White

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