Review for The Royal Tenenbaums
Good golly! How did I miss this when it came out? ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ is a frighteningly good film by any yardstick, despite also occupying a territory almost all of its own making. Its quirky, dry humour may not suit all tastes but this, pressed together with some bleak and melancholic drama, results in a remarkable achievement that defies all categorisation. It’s a complete one off.
Whilst Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is an actual person and not royalty, this is the story of both him and his family – a largely dysfunctional group of over-achievers struggling through their adult lives. Royal Tenenbaum’s ex-wife, Ethelene (Anjelica Huston) have three children—Chas, Margot, and Richie, though Margot was adopted and, cruelly, is never allowed to forget the fact. Each of the three kids have great success at very young ages and they become pretty famous as a result. Chas (Ben Stiller) started buying real estate in his early teens and has an uncanny knack at international finance. Margot (played superbly by Gwyneth Paltrow) was a playwright and received a Braverman Grant of $50,000 whilst still in her ninth grade. Richie (Luke Wilson) was a junior champion tennis player and won the U.S. Nationals three years in a row. Which is all well and good, except that, since that time, each of the protégé’s have failed to continue their success and their Father is, by any measure, an out-and-out loser – a useless parent whose whole life has been centred around his own needs.
It transpires that, after deliberately shooting his own son, Chas, in the hand during a mad game of soldiers using air-rifles, despite the fact that they were supposedly on the same side, has left more than just a physical scar. The young Chas sets about fighting back and somehow manages to manipulate things so that the deeds to the family home are now held in his own name, rather than his parents.
The film starts in the present day. Royal has long gone, living in a downtown hotel whilst the money lasts, leaving Ethelene to bring up the kids. After he is kicked out of his hotel, no longer able to pay the bills, Royal decides his best bet for a roof over his head is to go back to Ethelene and try and pick up where he left off.
Arriving back ‘home’ with his faithful Indian man-servant, Pagoda (Kumar Pallana) in tow (who he met when the man first stabbed him and then ‘saved his life’ by taking him to a hospital in India), he discovers that Ethelene is not as keen as he seems to be for a reconciliation. In fact, she is about to get married to the family’s accountant, the rather straight-laced Henry (Danny Glover) who it seems has always harboured a desire for his client.
He also gets a pretty cool reception from the kids who have all grown up and are still full of resentment for the way they were seemingly abandoned. So he decides to tell them all that he has stomach cancer and no more than six weeks to live.
Chas doesn’t believe a word of it, any more than the uber-cynical deadpan Margot – but Richie has a soft spot and invites him to live back in the house.
From here on in we discover that each of the characters have crippling psychological issues, including Royal and the film shows each of these get slowly mended by the unlikeliest of reunions.
Richie is depressed and suicidal, having become a great sports hero who has now lost his lead, and, besides, he has been in love with his (adopted) sister for most of his life. Margot, for her part, has been having an affair (one of many) with long-time family friend, Eli Cash (played by Owen Wilson) now a famous writer who has become addicted to mescaline. Her marriage to a much older, hang-dog academic (Raleigh St. Clair, played superbly by Bill Murray) means that she would rather sit in the bathroom smoking and watching her microscopic TV than have to talk to him. Chas now has two children of his own, but having lost his wife to an illness, is obsessed with the children’s safety to an obsessive and destructive point.
Narrated by Alec Baldwin, the film has a writerly style and you would be forgiven for thinking it had been adapted from a classic book – clearly director Wes Anderson’s intent. But it was in fact written by the Director himself with long-time collaborator Owen Wilson, who also takes the role of Eli Cash. It’s undeniably great writing and, in fact, was nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay in 2002.
Quite apart from the screenplay, the acting ensemble are fantastic. Although Gene Hackman was not Anderson’s first choice, he was fantastic in the lead role. It’s almost unimaginable that anyone else could have played it. Gwyneth Paltrow also delivers a sublime performance as the maudlin Margot; again, perfect casting.
The film looks great; full or trademark Wes Andersons sets and colours. As a Criterion Blu-Ray you would expect the transfer to be top-notch and it really is. Presented in original aspect ratio of 2.40:1, the 2K transfer was apparently overseen by director Wes Anderson himself (he does come across as a bit of control-freak in the extra features so this should be no surprise…). I guess that means this is as close to the director’s original vision as a Blu-Ray is likely to get. Now that 4K releases have taken off a bit, I’ll bet Anderson is cursing that he didn’t wait another 6 months for that!
Audio-wise, it’s English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 or nothing. Again, it’s been heavily worked on and is pretty flawless and the dialogue is always crisp and clear.
As is the way with Criterions, the disc comes packed with contextual features – again, apparently, all approved by the director. Sheesh – Anderson must have been some work getting this one out!
- With the Filmmaker – a classic behind the scenes featurette with tons of material showing Wes Anderson in action and reflecting how deeply involved he seemed to get in every nuance and detail of the film. (30 mins HD).
- Interviews - a ton of interviews with members of the cast, running for about 30 minutes in total. They include individual interviews with Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Danny Glover, all of whom had plenty of nice things to say about Wes Anderson and the process of making the film.
- Cut Scenes - two deleted scenes. (Running for about 2 mins)
- The Peter Bradley Show – A very weird, low budget show lasting for about 30 minutes featuring a host who looked like he was about to fall asleep at any moment and often struggled to find an appropriate question, interviewing bit part actors from the film. I suspect it’s actually a parody (like the audio commentary on the Coen Brother’s ‘Blood Simple’ DVD that had me fooled for a while) though I can’t be sure. Not sure it’s really worth 30 minutes of your busy day, whatever the case!
- Scrapbook – separated into chaptered segments, lots of the fine detail that went into creating the film can be found here. So stills from the set, paintings by Miguel Calderon which were used as décor in Eli Cash’s apartment, Richie’s photos and paintings of his sister Margot, storyboards, bedroom murals and so on.
- Commentary - With writer-director Wes Anderson and which is the same as a previous DVD release from Criterion from 2002. A lot of fine detail!
- Sleeve Insert – featuring some of Eric Anderson's drawings of the Tenenbaum house, and a short essay by critic Kent Jones.
Having never seen ‘The Royal Tenenbaum’s’ before I suppose I had low expectations. Whenever I see an all-star cast it turns me off; that means money and that means massive studio backing and that usually means something generic, designed by committee and typically crowd pleasing. ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ is anything but. It’s a wildly imaginative, beautifully crafted film full of both dark humour and pathos; well-constructed and with some outstanding performances. I will definitely be giving this a second spin before long. Highly recommended.