The Royal Tenenbaums is a film containing so many character that it’s almost impossible for focus to be kept, and yet that’s exactly what writer-director Wes Anderson has done. No fewer than eight characters are given significant screen time and personality, and yet at under two hours, they’re all given enough time to feel like real people. Very weird people, with tons of quirks to make them “special,” but people nonetheless.
The basic story goes something like this. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) left his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston) 22 years earlier, although they were never officially divorced. Etheline raised their three children, as well as a neighbor kid who desperately wanted to be a part of the Tenenbaum household. We are now in the present day, and Royal wants to get reacquainted with his children and wife, even though they want nothing to do with him. He’s dying of stomach cancer, he claims, and he wants to make amends for a lifetime of neglect in the six weeks he has left on this planet.
Each of his children were brilliant at a young age. One, Chas (Ben Stiller), understood how to make money on the stock market, and was so well-versed in the art of finance that he successfully sued his father twice. He wants nothing to do with his father now, who reappears in his life at a bad time, considering his wife recently died. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), was an award-winning playwright, and a secret smoker from the age of twelve. She is also adopted, a fact that Royal continually professed at any opportunity.
There is also the tennis prodigy, Richie (Luke Wilson), who won a few championships but retired at the age of 26 after having a mental breakdown on the court. Eli (Owen Wilson) was the kid who lived across the street, and currently suffers from a drug problem while also writing commercially successful Western novels, all of which are bashed by critics. Many of these characters have others in their lives who show up rather often. Margot is married to a neurologist (Bill Murray), Chas has a couple of kids of his own, and Etheline is beginning a romance with her accountant (Danny Glover).
The interactions between all of these characters is incredibly enjoyable. Wes Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson both write some great dialogue, and like the director’s earlier films, dialogue is one of the main reasons to watch the film. It’s clever, funny, and enlightening. The humor is ironic, sarcastic, and also based around the silly situations and the quirks of the characters. This is a film that will make you laugh more often than not.
The Royal Tenenbaums is a silly film, but there’s an emotional truth behind pretty much all of its characters and situation. It uses this silliness — like many people do in their own lives — to mask a deeper reality. Characters aren’t just quirky for the sake of it; there’s a reason behind how they are and you can bet that there will be a few moments in the film figuring out exactly why this is and perhaps helping to resolve — or embrace, in some cases — these eccentricities.
It’s impressive how well all of these people are balanced, and how the film is perfectly paced. This is such an amazing skill, and it’s one that Anderson hasn’t previously shown. His earlier films were more narrow in scope and focus. This one has a far greater number of characters, and yet The Royal Tenenbaums seems to have just as much dedication to each one. Nobody feels as if they’ve been skipped over or as if they don’t belong in the film, and they’re all three-dimensional beings not defined by their quirkiness, even though that would be an easy trap to fall into.
At its core, The Royal Tenenbaums is a film about a man on a quest for redemption. But it’s so much more than that. You’ve seen the basic story before, but the details and the secondary characters make it so much more than that. There are even a couple of surprises to the story, and the relationships between the different people go in directions you won’t expect. Like Anderson’s other films, this is a film that feels fresh regardless of how much it borrows from previous works.
It also contains good-to-great performances from everyone. The best of the bunch is delivered by Gene Hackman, who makes a difficult role his and ensures that nobody else can be envisioned playing the part. Ben Stiller is angry for the majority of the film, but shows surprising, raw, emotion at the end. Gwyenth Paltrow’s emotional detachment allows her to turn in one of the better performances of her career, while Luke Wilson’s generally optimistic outlook perfectly hides a deeper secret.
The Royal Tenenbaums is a really wonderful film. It’s hilarious, for starters, and contains am emotional truth underneath its quirkiness. The balancing act that has to be done in order for all of these characters to feel important and real is impressive in and of itself, and a testament to both the directorial skill of Wes Anderson, but also the screenwriting talent of Anderson and Owen Wilson. While it’s undoubtedly silly, The Royal Tenenbaums is absolutely worth seeing.