Droid defines the Decades best movies – #14 The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
I’ve been stuck trying to write this review, as it’s difficult to put in to words why I like it without pulling out nothing but clichés. I’ll try to get a few out of the way and hopefully something readable will occur. Bear with me.
The plot, as it is, is simple. There isn’t really one. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is the estranged father of a trio of talented kids, each of whom have since grown up and had meltdowns. Chas (Ben Stiller) is a natural businessman who, since the death of his wife in a plane crash, spends his days being overprotective of his two boys. Richie (Luke Wilson) is the tennis star who had an unexplained meltdown in the final of a tournament and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the adopted daughter who became a successful playwright as a child. Etheline (Angelica Houston) is their mother, an archaeologist who pushed their potential. Eli (Owen Wilson) is the kid across the street who dreamed of being a Tenenbaum and has become a successful novelist. All these characters (and many more) come together and quirkiness ensues.
Much like Wes Anderson’s previous film ‘Rushmore’, this film works as well as it does because of the lead actor. It was Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer in ‘Rushmore’, and in ‘Tenenbaums’ it’s Gene Hackman. He makes what could’ve been just a shifty, selfish bastard into a hilarious shifty, selfish bastard. It’s a brilliant performance and completely unique. He has a certain cadence that naturally fits with the writing. Despite being a jerk to pretty much everyone, he’s never irritating and always amusing. Hopefully Hackman will appear in another Anderson film soon.
I’ve seen this film labelled a ‘dramedy’. I hate that term. And I don’t really think it fits anyway. I don’t particularly think it ever strays from being a comedy. Sure there are serious moments (in the context of the film), but it achieves more of a state of melancholy. So, hence forth, I’m labelling it a ‘melancomedy’.
Credit where credit is due. The writing in this film is phenomenal. Anderson and Owen Wilson have filled it with oddball characters, but made them believable. And each character has individual moments to shine. I particularly liked the story of how Pagoda (Kumar Pallana) and Royal met, and Dusty (Seymour Cassel) dishing out medical advice. The dialogue is hilarious, a lot of it due to Royal saying inappropriate or unsympathetic things like “I’m very sorry for your loss. Your mother was a terribly attractive woman.” or “Anybody interested in grabbing a couple of burgers and hittin’ the cemetery?” It’s noticeable that Anderson’s less successful later films weren’t co-written by Wilson.
The look of the film is one that has since become the Anderson trademark. It’s a throwback to the 70’s fashion, with a little 60’s and 80’s blended in there as well. It’s a distinctive look, and that’s difficult to achieve in todays films. He definitely see’s himself as a 70’s filmmaker. You always know you’re watching a Wes Anderson film. Just see his “The Fantastic Mr Fox” and you’ll understand what I mean. His animated stop motion film looks, sounds and feels like a companion piece to this.
The film is narrated by Alec Baldwin and is edited as if it’s being read as an audio book. It’s one of the many stylistic choices that could have threatened the whole thing, but it pays off. Like Quentin Tarantino, Anderson’s films are notable for their music, and ‘Tenenbaums’ is filled with 70’s music from The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and The Beatles.
I’ve seen ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ numerous times and this melancomedy (not dramedy!) never fails to make me laugh. But it’s more serious moments find a way of endearing the film and making it even more memorable. And then there’s the dialogue…
As an example of the quality of the writing, here’s an exchange between Royal and Henry Sherman (Danny Glover).
Royal: I’ve always been considered an asshole for about as long as I can remember. That’s just my style. But I’d really feel blue if I didn’t think you were going to forgive me.
Henry: I don’t think you’re an asshole, Royal. I just think you’re kind of a son of a bitch.
Royal: Well, I really appreciate that.