Masterclass Cinema – The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Direction: Wes Anderson

Starring: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Houston, Bill Murray, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson and Owen Wilson

Family isn’t a word, it’s a sentence.

These are the words that decorate the incredibly crowded poster for The Royal Tenenbaums, which makes it seem like your average family comedy. Although it just might be the most universally accessible of the films of Wes Anderson, it far from deserves to be put down as ‘average’, and is easily among his best, second only to last year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in my opinion. Having always been something of a connoisseur of awry dysfunctional families and relationships – from Bottle Rocket to The Darjeeling Limited – Anderson takes on a mammoth of a family in this one, namely the Tenenbaums. The house on Archer Avenue housed, as Etheline Tenenbaum christened it, ‘The Family of Geniuses’ – Chas who was a financial whiz at elementary school age, Margot who won the Braverman playwright grant at age twelve, and Richie who turned pro and won the US Tennis Championship at seventeen. With so many egos floating around, including the father Royal’s, there is bound to be tension and drama which is made all the more endearing with Anderson’s unique style.

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The film opens with narration from what seems to be the book Etheline Tenenbaum has written about the family, and accompanied by the most gleeful melodies of the Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’ we are introduced to the Tenenbaums, a family with the most delightfully offbeat tone. As Alec Baldwin’s impeccable voice takes us through the early days of the young Tenenbaums, we see that Royal was never a doting or attentive father, but instead dealt with them as a litigator (which he was) would his clients. Chas gets shot between the knuckles by a BB from Royal; Margot’s first play gets a critical review more suited for Broadway than the dancing animals-variety; and Richie he takes along to bloody dogfights. It is clear from the start that the children, as genius as they may be, will inevitably grow up to be emotional wrecks as is proven by the story which leaps forward about two decades. The Tenenbaums live a very different life than you or I: not only because of their unfair and distant father, but simply because they exist in a quirkily fictional New York where everyone is high-strung about puny things, and incredibly complacent about earthquakes. This incites a particular brand of bookish comedy that gets us grinning at Royal introducing the second child by ‘This is my adopted daughter, Margot Tenenbaum’.

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Granted, reciting the events and undertones of The Royal Tenenbaums makes it seem morbidly black comedy, but the ingenuity of the film lies therein: in being able to draw out light comedy from the darkest of situations merely by having certain characters phrase words in a particular way, or look at one another in a comic transfixion. Years later, as it was predicted that the ego-strung relationship would cause, the Tenenbaums have gone from child protégés to absurd adults. In fact, there is an almost roundabout transformation where Chas, Margot and Richie who donned grown-up personas and talked like adults have grown up to be very childish adults. Chas has gone from wearing tailored suits from his self-made rack to constantly appearing in a red tracksuit; Margot from authoring masterful plays to soaking in the bath watching telly whilst drifting from man to man; and Richie from tennis-pro to a hapless has-been whose monotones seem suicidal. Love has bloomed between the step-siblings Margot and Richie, they who camped together at the Museum of Natural History: with the latter having always adored Margot and she, with her overt cynicism too caught up to realise. It is a most beautiful web that Anderson spins, to tie his characters together and dare them do the most outrageous deeds without a cringe.

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The story at present unfolds as Royal, a most opportunistic father as time has proven, returns to the family with under the false excuse that he has six weeks to live, when in fact all that he is at the end of is his bank balance and good tidings with the Lindberg Palace Hotel. It is ironically the return of the prodigal father that reunites the Tenenbaums; the event serving as some sort of catalyst for the kids to take a step back and start afresh. The family once again fills out the large house on Archer Avenue which allots isolated spaces to each of the children, so that individuality may flourish; as we can see, from the neurotic and aggressive Chas to the morbidly monosyllabic Margot, you couldn’t tell they all lived under the same roof. And this stark distinction is played to its utmost strength once we see Royal trying to win back his kids, almost in a one-sided dogfight with Sherman, the man who is now betrothed to Etheline. It is a fusillade of rage both active and passive aggressive, as well as delight that has long since forgotten the meaning of heartfelt that ensues, to create a skewed atmosphere that somehow equates to raw warmth. We are taught to aspire for faultless perfection; but most of the times we unknowingly realise that true beauty and art lies in the little imperfections that give human lives meaning. It is the ever so slight crookedness of the hanging picture, that small splatter of ink outside the lines that we are drawn to – that captures our intrigue and curiosity. It is this deeper and unfelt emotion that Wes Anderson and the whole cast appeals to in this poetically askew masterpiece.

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Anderson looks at the world through very peculiar lenses, and what is most identifiable about his work are the awfully specific and almost magical objects that find themselves interspersed in the story, finding a life of their own. The Royal Tenenbaums boasts Richie’s eagle Mordecai – almost a limb of his character that finds reunited toward the end, Margot’s prosthetic half-finger which she taps in a frustrated fashion, and the cigarette that’s forever meeting Margot’s unimpressed lips. While these little objects of interest find a way to drive the plot around and bring more bookish tendencies to the film, this film distances itself from the rest of Anderson’s portfolio by having more characters take the place of the usual curios, and in a way satisfying the vision of the film’s crowded poster. Margot’s current husband Raleigh St. Clair attends to a most peculiar patient on whom he writes a thesis (and who for no explained reason sticks with St. Clair no matter where he goes, even to his family gatherings), Chas’ twins Ari and Uzi who are played between Chas and Royal at an age where they are complacent to most things unlike their father, and you could say Royal’s faithful friend Pagoda who saved his life from a murder attempt by Pagoda. In many ways, this is the most human of Anderson’s films, where everything is about the characters within: the shifty father who manipulates his children for pleasure, the children that have become of such treatment, the devoted new lover, a disgruntled old lover, a drug-fuelled jealous neighbour; there is no scarcity of colourful fellows. Once again, Anderson’s distinctive style of symmetry kicks in, as he maneuvers the set and its people around a stark center which plays center stage to what each character deems important, which is the spirit of the story.

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What elevates the family drama above the commonplace affair is the excellent screenplay which is then executed with perfect comedic timing by the actors. Every line spoken is done so at the right time and in the right many words so as to create a world quite detached from the usual human reaction. This is not to say the characters are impossible and hard to digest, rather the whole piece is pulled together so effortlessly that we simply forget what our square sensibilities to indulge in this bizarre morsel where dark humour is played off to hearty ‘hahas’. This is only possible because of this unyielding screenplay that defies all order of normalcy and finds the most humour in the silent pauses between characters. Aside from Royal and Chas, it is true that the rest of the crew say very few lines, Margot choosing to express herself only through cold stares, Richie through raw acts that scream out what he cannot put to words, and Pagoda providing the most poignant words at Royal’s most predicated moments. And the presence and interplay of these silly characters compel The Royal Tenenbaums to be perhaps the most faithful spiritual adaptation of P G Wodehouse there ever was.

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The actors do a brilliant job in breathing life into these characters, but the highlight of the affair is Gwyneth Paltrow as Margot Tenenbaum. While more seasoned actors such as Gene Hackman, Bill Murray and Anjelica Houston drive forward the story and prevent it from falling to a silent artistic piece, it is her most matter-of-fact character whose eyes get us the very first time. Owen Wilson as the jealous/lunatic neighbour boy, Danny Glover as Etheline’s new lover adamant to expose Royal, all fill in the shoes of the clear-cut characters quite easily. Luke Wilson as the third kid Richie is perhaps the most down-to-earth of all the Tenenbaums, and the one in constant search for meaning. This is laid down through very subtle elements throughout the plot; having him end up on a ship years after his meltdown on the court – a sort of self-exploratory cruise – and the queer pet that he chooses in Mordecai as well as his fleeting reaction on having him return all point to this leading man facet of his character. This is also what leads him to commit such raw acts without so much of an outburst: he is accepting of the situation, which is probably why Royal and he always shared a bond closer than any of the others. Add to all of this the delightful narrative voice of Alec Baldwin and what more could you possibly want?

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A scrambled race to win over affections, to twist impressions and to constantly put each other down; this is both the spirit of the family patriarch as well as every character that graces the eponymous film. Blending together oh so many characters and the tempers that go with them, Anderson presents to us this time the very epitome of the family comedy; as dysfunctional as the family in question is. This dysfunctional nature and refusal to play nice or to ordinary societal standards is what sets The Royal Tenenbaums a class apart, and a most endearing work. A brilliantly defiant and oddball screenplay that finds pauses and stares to be its curios, recited so meticulously by the cast that seems one with its characters all shrouded under the visionary umbrella of Wes Anderson, produce a most satisfactory morsel that exists in a dream of its own. And when all of it is topped off with the trademark slow-motion evocative end, the result is priceless. The surprisingly decadent and detached humour makes the characters’ quest for attention not only pointed at each other, but also at the viewer – a bag of Bertie Bott’s that you never know what flavour to expect. But two things are for sure: for all the inappropriate things the characters find complacence and aggression in, the overarching verdict is awfully right. And for a tale of a morbidly dysfunctional and cutthroat family, it is awfully heartwarming.

Rating: 9/10

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