Photo By: Noah Nickel via IMDB
One of the film world’s favourite oddballs is about to be thrust into the spotlight once again, as director Wes Anderson’s new film, The French Dispatch, is set to hit theatres in North America on Oct. 22. With Anderson’s newest release right around the corner, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on his 2001 film, The Royal Tenenbaums.
Anderson is renowned for his distinct film making style. Cinephiles can pull a single frame from almost any of Anderson’s films and instantly recognize it as one of his shots. Though Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998) were met with much praise as Anderson kick started his career, it was with ‘Tenenbaums’ when Anderson truly began to refine his visual and narrative styles. The use of title cards, a chaptered narrative and eerily symmetrical framing would all go on to become staples of his style.
The film tells the story of the fictional Tenenbaums, an upper class family living in New York City who came about their wealth through undisclosed means. The father, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), who was admittedly never the greatest father to his three children, essentially serves as the film’s emotional centre. Royal, in his old age, attempts to reconcile with his parental pitfalls by re-entering his family’s lives at perhaps the most inconvenient of times.
Hackman’s performance is brilliant, and was also the last great performance he would give before retiring from acting just three years later. Not only is he able to deliver Anderson’s wry humour and sharp dialogue, but the character’s pain and loneliness quietly shine through him as well.
Hackman’s chemistry with his character’s wife, Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Huston), is unmatched as well. Etheline acts as the family’s guiding light, and cares for her children much more than her husband ever did. Royal’s unique relationship with each of his three children are a consistent plot point of the film as well.
Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller), the oldest of the once-gifted Tenenbaum children is essentially everything his father isn’t. Where Royal was distant and detached from his children, Chas is ever present in the lives of his two sons, Ari and Uzi. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), the Tenenbaum’s adopted daughter, has always given the impression that she lives a completely joyless life. This inevitably creates a distance between her and her father. The youngest of the children, Richie (Luke Wilson), was always the most physically gifted, going on to become a professional tennis star at a very young age. Royal seems to latch on to Richie because of this, and always seemed to have a stronger bond with him than the other two children. Oh, and also Owen Wilson is in this movie playing a perpetually drugged out novelist enamored with cowboy aesthetics.
Visually, the film has the quintessential Wes Anderson style. The shots are packed with eccentricities, and the vibrant colours pop to amplify the vintage New York City setting. While his later films such as Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) may have more technically “perfect” shots that legitimately look like they could be paintings, each frame of The Royal Tenenbaums is crammed with so much character and heart. This is what makes this film stand out from the rest of Anderson’s filmography. In no other film does Anderson so heavily deconstruct characters in relation to the meaning of family.
You’d be a fool to talk about The Royal Tenenbaums without mentioning it’s soundtrack. With licensed soundtracks being so commonplace in film in the late 2010s and early 2020s, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when they were still a novelty. Recognizable tracks are littered throughout the film’s just under two-hour runtime. Songs from classic artists such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, and Van Morrison are among the most memorable. The focus on groups from the 1960s and 1970s also perfectly fit with Anderson’s nostalgic tendencies, as the film sees characters constantly looking to the past throughout the film.
Ultimately, The Royal Tenenbaums is a story about a collection of individuals who are completely lost for one reason or another. For the Tenenbaum children, they seem to be lost in their young adulthood because of their childhood fame. Through the depiction of their troubling life events, Anderson demonstrates the pain of growing up incredibly well.
If you haven’t seen The Royal Tenenbaums by now, go check it out. If you haven’t seen ANY Wes Anderson films by now, you should really get on that. Your heart will thank you when you do.