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The Royal Tenenbaums

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Gwyneth Paltrow watches Luke Wilson's audition for "Falcon and the Snowman 2: The Quickening."

© 2001, Touchstone Pictures
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Those who believe lightning doesn't strike twice should be advised to check out Wes Anderson's latest triumph, "The Royal Tenenbaums" (IMDb listing). Taking the unsullied heart of his first film "Bottle Rocket" with the style and cinematic sophistication of his follow-up feature, "Rushmore," Anderson has formed another ambitious, hilarious, and soul-lifting film. In the process, he also solidifies himself as the king of the new geek cinema.

Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is a neglectful father. Choosing himself over his family of child geniuses, Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson), Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and his loving wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston), Royal's selfish ways tore the family apart. Years later, Royal is having a change of heart, and he fakes a life threatening ailment to get his family back together so he can make amends. Trouble is, this family is way too dysfunctional for any kind of change to take place, and with the help of family friend/drug addict/best-selling-author Eli (Owen Wilson), a whole new set of problems arise when the Tenenbaums decide to live together again. The cast also includes Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Seymour Cassel, Kumar Pallana, and is narrated by Alec Baldwin.

Effortless, beautiful, jubilant...those are some of the words to describe "The Royal Tenenbaums." These are excellent words to describe Anderson's filmography as well. A true talent, with an unequaled eye and vision for his films, Wes Anderson brings to life his own material (written with his usual suspect and co-star Owen Wilson) as few filmmakers can. He uses almost disturbingly specific details to shape his characters, and the love he has for these people makes the heart ache. Anderson specializes in complete cinema, never letting one peculiarity slip out of place. He also gives the piece a timeless quality that I didn't catch until after my viewing. The characters use Apple II computers, they listen to vinyl records, they live in a permanent state of the moment when they lost their innocence. They are stuck in a time warp, and Anderson doesn't call them on it. So complete is this picture that I learned more about the Tenenbaums in the first 20 minutes of this movie than I know about my own family.

Returning with cinematographer Robert Yeoman, production designer David Wasco, costume designer Karen Patch and composer Mark Mothersbaugh from the earlier films, Anderson takes these talented individuals to new heights with "Tenenbaums." Anderson's films have always been lovely affairs, but "Tenenbaums" has the advantage of a bigger budget, a larger cast, and more details to be poured over. The look of the film is shimmering with warm pinks and charcoal grays, all captured with unfettered widescreen luster. The composition is more complete than "Rushmore," and infinitely more lavish than "Bottle Rocket." That's not to say it's a better film than those two—it isn't, though not by much—but to see Anderson get saddled with more and more artistic roadblocks and baggage, yet still retain his vision 100 percent? That is an achievement that normally take 25 films and a heart-attack to get people to appreciate this kind of talent. After only two other films, I feel Anderson has found his calling. Even if he keeps making these bittersweet comedies, he will have accomplished what other directors can only dream about: he is making his classics now.

While the film is abundant with talent, it's Gene Hackman who steals the show as the lonely cretin who can't get a break. Hackman brings to Royal a diminished quality that everyone can see except Royal. He's a fighter. A man who refuses to give up on the world even though the world has asked Royal to give up a couple of times. Going beyond the plentiful laughs Hackman brings to the performance, he also seems to get Anderson's aesthetic and uses that knowledge to cleverly show Royal's pain and disgust with how his family has turned out without raising a finger. The interplay between Hackman and the cast is lovely, but the film's best moments are just Royal alone with an idea. A foolish idea that his family will eventually forgive him. Hackman is profound in the role, and as it did with Bill Murray in "Rushmore," teaming with Anderson wrangles out a deeper performance than the actor could get out of himself alone.

Nobody understands this better than Luke Wilson. In this, his third collaboration with Anderson, Wilson is given a tougher challenge this time out. As the burned-out tennis superstar Richie "Baumer" Tenenbaum, Wilson is somber, reflective, and achingly beautiful as the disturbed and deeply in love eldest Tenenbaum. This is his finest work to date, and I adore the shades of gray Anderson was able to pull out of this normally colorful actor. Wilson has the darkest role of the entire cast, and buried under his Bjorn Borg hair and sweatband, Wilson conveys a lifetime of pain with a grace he should be allowed to wear more often.

"The Royal Tenenbaums" could be considered a companion piece to "Rushmore" as both share the same style and presentation. Though gone are the British Invasion classics that elevated the "Rushmore" mood to stratospheric heights, Anderson has replaced them with a more eclectic set of tunes for "Royal," including numbers by Paul Simon, The Ramones and Anderson staple, The Rolling Stones. "Royal" also has a more literary theme to it, with the film divided into chapters, and every character a best-selling author. Yet the energy and mood of "Royal" falls along the same side of the road as "Rushmore." Anderson isn't repeating himself here at all, it's just that he has found a terrific niche in which he can tell some decidedly hostile stories without ever killing the moral of his pictures. I've spent nights praying other filmmakers would wake up and do the same.

"The Royal Tenenbaums" is a pure delight from start to finish. It's another step forward for Anderson and his peculiar world view, and a third bouquet of priceless cinema for the audience. This is a film not to miss.

Filmfodder Grade: A+

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