The Royal Tenenbaums


Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by:Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson
Starring: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover, Bill Murray
Released: March 14, 2002
Grade: A-

These days, movies are typecast into “genres”.  At the local video store you’ll find sections called comedy, romance, thriller, action, drama, etc.  When people go to the movies, they go with the mindset of what they are going to see - they know if they’re expected to laugh, they know if they’re expected to be scared, they know if they’re expected to become emotional.

The Royal Tenenbaums is a movie ahead of its time - it has no genre.  It opens like a comedy but then it becomes something else... or does it?

Royal and Ethel Tenenbaum (Hackman and Huston) married and had three children who all showed gifted promise as a child.  Chas (Stiller) became a business entrepreneur and ran his own successful company.  Margot (Paltrow) became a playwright and wrote several well-critiqued productions.  Richie (Wilson) became a tennis player and his natural ability saw him turn professional and hit the circuit.

Just prior to the children reaching their teen years, Royal and Ethel separated (although they never divorced).  Royal moved to a hotel where he remained for 22 years and in that time, had little to no contact with Ethel or their children.  Now, Royal is broke and kicked out.  At the same time, he finds that his wife’s accountant, Harry Sherman (Glover) has proposed to her.

As for Chas, Margot and Richie, their lives have reached the depths of misery.  Chas lost his wife in a plane accident, Margot lives a loveless uninspired existence and Richie suffered a nervous breakdown on the tennis court and retired.  To find themselves again, they have moved back to the family home.

It’s all about to be rocked though by the reappearance of Royal and he’s killing more than one bird with his stone.  He thinks he can just walk back in, reacquaint himself with his kids and reaffirm his love for Ethel.  They’re all in for a few surprises...

Despite the hilarity of these absurd characters, they all behave very seriously.  This contradiction gives The Royal Tenenbaums its quirky feel - you’re not sure whether your supposed to be laughing or crying.  Royal’s fate in the finale is proof enough of that.  The film has no formula and I can understand the frustration the audience feels in not knowing what to expect or feel.

I love it because film has become too formulaic.  Subconsciously, we know what’s going to happen.  We usually know when a conversation has ended by the way the final sentence is worded.  We usually know when something thrilling is happening by the music that precedes it.  Think about it and then imagine the opposite.  Now you’re in the ballpark when trying to describe The Royal Tenenbaums.

Gene Hackman won a Golden Globe for his performance and is remarkable.  Just as impressive is the ageless Angelica Huston.  All of the cast play their comedic roles with downplayed originality.  Humour comes naturally and jokes aren’t set up - this will divide many audiences.  Compare it to Gary Larson’s Far Side comics - some jokes are obvious but others require an absurd sense of humour to understand.

Wes Anderson’s last film, Rushmore, was another underappreciated flick that has a growing cult status.  The Royal Tenenbaums will most likely follow in a similar vein but it’s nice to see minds opening up with this unconventional screenplay receiving an Academy Award nomination for both Wes Anderson and star Owen Wilson.  So what’s the best “genre” to categorise this film?  How about... hilariously depressing.