The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenwriters: Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson
Starring: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Danny Glover
Following the critical lauding of Rushmore, Wes Anderson’s next feature The Royal Tenenbaums would prove to be one of his most creative and best-loved films. It appeared in the BBC’s Top 100 Films of the 21st Century list in 2016 and has received high praise from many quarters including Empire & The Guardian. Many of the contemporary reviews viewed it favourably as a follow-up to 1998’s well received Rushmore, this 2001 film illustrating Anderson’s continuing growth as a director. A valid case could be made that the film’s critical and audience appreciation has continued to grow steadily in the near two decades that have followed its release. Anderson would receive an Oscar nomination for his Original Screenplay in conjunction with frequent collaborator Owen Wilson.
The Royal Tenenbaums focuses on our titular family of kooky individuals, with failed Tennis player Richie (Luke Wilson), entrepreneur Chas (Ben Stiller) and playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) as the children of Royal (Gene Hackman) and Ethel (Anjelica Huston). Royal, after a period of absence, re-enters the family’s life to the delight of Richie and much to the chagrin of Chas. The casting of the film is one of its highlights – this is Anderson’s first ensemble cast and also features the likes of Owen Wilson, Danny Glover and Bill Murray offering fine support to the titular Tenenbaums.
Gene Hackman in particular excels as the wisecracking, carefree patriarch and has fine chemistry with the wider cast, particularly with Danny Glover and Ben Stiller. This is one of Hackman’s best latter career performances and a fine contrast to some of his more sombre roles in iconic films such as The French Connection and The Conversation. Considering the wealth of characters, the extended cast never feels overly large, with each member getting their moment to shine and complimenting each other from scene to scene.
The Royal Tenenbaums is a great advert for Anderson’s brand of humour and the depth of his screenplays. The zany dialogue is effortlessly delivered by the cast who make their unorthodox characters appear natural. The various family members’ initial disdain for Royal is evident, and the film is able to tap into their individual insecurities and troubles. The gradual shift towards Royal is handled in a delicate and believable manner, and for all of the film’s far flung acts and quirkiness, its heart and the family’s relationship at its centre remain very tangible.
The cinematography that has come to define Anderson’s career in many regards is on full display here, with long term collaborator Robert Yeoman excelling at breathing life into the New York settings – the pop-up book nature of each segment is delightful, and the warmth of the colours and the nature of the outfits really help the film to sing.
The film’s soundtrack showcases yet again Anderson’s penchant for needle drops with 60s-70s tunes prominent from The Clash and The Rolling Stones to The Velvet Underground, each song perfectly matching the scenario it accompanies; Paul Simon’s “Me And Julio Down By The School Yard” capturing some of Royal’s escapades with his Grandsons, for example.
In some ways The Royal Tenenbaums acts as a polar opposite to Rushmore, which is a coming of age tale. Tenenbaums is more focused on ageing and in particular the fragility of Royal. As with Max and Herman’s relationship in Rushmore, Royal and his relationship to his grandsons is surprisingly warm and at the very core of the film’s emotional gravitas. Unusual relationships will remain a constant in Anderson’s filmography, resurfacing in Zero and M Gustave’s friendship at the heart of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Attari and Chief’s relationship in Isle Of Dogs. Longer than both Rushmore and Bottle Rocket, Tenenbaums zips along at a breakneck pace and is constantly inventive and adventurous.
The Royal Tenenbaums is a wonderful showcase for the creative minds of Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, building on the success of Rushmore to become one of the most iconic works in Anderson’s filmography. The cinematography we’ve come to know and love from Anderson’s films is more prominent than in previous releases and the wonderful ensemble cast compliment each other perfectly, with standout work from Gene Hackman and the Wilson brothers. While The Royal Tenenbaums may be closing in on its twenty year anniversary, it has lost none of its inventiveness or quirkiness and continues to be a delight in many ways, sitting alongside Anderson’s very best.