Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001)

Notable Festivals: New York, Berlinale (In Competition)

Inducted into Criterion Collection: 2002

After the breakout success of 1998’s RUSHMORE, director Wes Anderson had established himself as a singularly unique and quirky voice in independent cinema.  With his career now on the rise, Anderson and his writing partner Owen Wilson turned their attention to what was their most ambitious project yet:  a sprawling tale about a fallen upper-class New York family that was inspired by Anderson’s parents’ divorce as much as it was inspired by Orson Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942).  Titled THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, the project saw Anderson and Wilson reunite with their RUSHMORE producer Barry Mendel, who was able to leverage the success of their previous collaboration into bringing prestige mogul Scott Rudin onboard to help them steer the good ship American Empirical towards its next port of call:  New York City.  THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) was Anderson’s first film shot outside of his native Texas, with the change of scenery significantly expanding Anderson’s worldview and sense of scope even as he endeavored to tell an intimate story about a family fallen on hard times.

Anderson’s New York City is rendered in a highly-stylized and fictionalized manner, capitulating to the stylistic conceits of his central characters as if they had built the city themselves.  As the title would suggest, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS tells the story of the Tenenbaum family, a prosperous and upwardly-mobile clan living in a charming, yet stately, brownstone mansion somewhere on the Upper East Side.  The parents are successful in their own right, but their children are regarded as outright prodigies, each one blessed with an extreme intellect and an inherent talent for their chosen activities.  But, just as the house used for shooting was actually located in working-class Harlem in real life, appearances can be deceiving, and the Tenenbaum family’s constant pursuit of excellence masks their debilitating shortcomings and failures.  One day, patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) gathers his children together to inform them of his divorce to their mother, Etheline (Anjelica Huston).  This kicks off a long, downward spiral for the once-great Tenenbaums, with each kid in turn succumbing to the disappointments of adulthood.  Just as suddenly as he had left, Royal returns decades later to his grown children with another devastating announcement– he’s dying of cancer.  This development brings the estranged Tenenbaum clan all back under the same roof, inadvertently creating factions and rivalries when old flames flare back up and old scores demand settling.  As the situation expands into an increasingly-comedic conflagration, the Tenenbaums will learn that for all their god-given talents, their best assets have always been each other.

The warm reception of RUSHMORE privileged Anderson with the clout to cast genuine Hollywood stars for the first time in his career, and while his selections for THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS are decidedly off-kilter and unexpected, he exhibits an exceptional eye for casting and an ability to consistently display ubiquitous and established performers in a new light.  This could be easily applied towards any of the film’s three most high-profile leads, Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, and Gwyneth Paltrow.  Much like Bill Murray in RUSHMORE or James Caan in BOTTLE ROCKET (1996), Hackman fills the role of the old-school showbiz veteran whose presence lends a great deal of prestige and gravitas to the picture.  Despite reports that Hackman was combative with Anderson during production, you’d never know it just by watching his performance, which he throws himself into with mischievous zeal and deceitful gusto.  Royal is something of a peacock, draping himself in loud (yet somehow tasteful) double-breasted suits and affecting a grandfatherly cad’s persona to match.  Primarily known for playing hard-nosed brutes and stubborn heartland father figures, Hackman uses the character of Royal Tenenbaum to show off a gentler, happier side of his personality, creating one of his most memorable roles in the process.  Ben Stiller follows in Bill Murray’s footsteps as an SNL alum, turned popular comedy star, turned soulful indie stalwart.  Consider the fact that THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS was released the same year Stiller let loose his endlessly popular modeling satire ZOOLANDER, and his angry, neurotic performance here becomes all the more remarkable.  Never seen without his trademark tracksuit, Stiller’s Chas Tenenbaum has let his beef with his father turn him into an altogether different monster towards his own boys– one who burdens them with his own obsessive compulsive concerns about safety or making every moment of free time count towards their financial and physical betterment.  Stiller’s performance is unexpectedly moving, precisely because of Anderson’s inspired casting against type.  While Stiller has yet to collaborate with Anderson again, his involvement in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS would set the stage for further dramatic forays, the most notable of which being GREENBERG (2010) and WHILE WE’RE YOUNG (2015)– both directed by Anderson’s frequent writing partner Noah Baumbach.  When she’s working with directors like Paul Thomas Anderson or David Fincher, Gwyneth Paltrow is able to transcend her admittedly bland instincts and deliver a truly edgy performance.  This is certainly true of THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, where she projects a deadpan, cynical persona onto the character of Margot Tenenbaum, the family’s adopted daughter and an enigmatic playwright with a nympho streak.

With the retaining of several of his BOTTLE ROCKET and RUSHMORE costars and the appearance of new faces who would go on to collaborate with Anderson again, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS establishes the idea of the director’s close-knit company of actors– a repertory from which he draws again and again like a stage director would.  Both Wilson boys return in full force, after appearing in RUSHMORE via mere cameos (Luke) or not even at all (Owen).  Luke plays Richie Tenenbaum, a fallen tennis star who’s lovesickness for his adopted sister Margot has caused him to grow quiet, withdrawn, and depressed.  Owen Wilson plays Eli Cash, not necessarily a Tenenbaum per se, but he grew up so closely with them that he might as well be one.  Like Richie, he’s also in love with Margot, but he’s been able to achieve more success than Richie thanks to his successful career as a prestigious western novel author.  Owen turns in a hilariously bizarre performance that’s always draped in cowboy fringe and never short on charm, despite the character’s supreme narcissism and escalating cocaine habit.  With a character role noticeably diminished from his stature in RUSHMORE and crowded in amongst several other eclectic personas vying for attention, it would be easy to forgive Bill Murray’s performance for getting lost in the shuffle.  Thankfully, Murray more than holds his own as a prominent neurologist and Margot’s humorless husband, Raleigh St. Clair.  Seymour Cassel, who was plucked from the late indie auteur John Cassavete’s troupe of performers to join Anderson’s in RUSHMORE, pops up in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS as Dusty, a kindly elevator operator in cahoots with Royal’s mischievous agenda.  Anjelica Huston puts in the first of several performances for Anderson as a noted archaeologist and the Tenenbaum matriarch, Etheline, projecting a quiet dignity and strength to counter Royal’s admittedly juvenile worldview.  The character is reportedly based on Anderson’s own mother, who was an archaeologist as well.  Kumar Pallana, in his third consecutive appearance in an Anderson film, is gifted here with a much higher-profile role than his last two outings.  He plays Pagoda, the Tenenbaum’s slightly batty, possibly dementia-riddled housekeeper who moonlights as Royal’s partner in crime.

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS arguably boasts the largest cast of any Anderson film, possibly too large to fully cover in-depth here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the involvement of Danny Glover and Alec Baldwin.  Glover plays Henry Sherman, the Tenenbaum’s family accountant and Etheline’s new beau.  Impeccably dressed in a bowtie and bright candy colors, Sherman is a prototypical Anderson character— a charmingly eccentric throwback to a bygone era.  Glover plays Sherman against type as a dignified intellectual plagued by insecurity and anxiety.  Alec Baldwin appears only in voice form as the Narrator, but his quiet, stately baritone fits in perfectly with Anderson’s highly-stylized take on New York’s bourgeoisie.

Anderson has one of the most highly-identifiable styles of any director, living or dead, and if RUSHMORE could be considered the establishment of said style, then THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS doubles down on its affectations and solidifies it into his signature.  Returning for his third consecutive go-round, cinematographer Robert Yeoman has become Anderson’s chief conspirator in fashioning his style.  The 35mm film image was acquired via true anamorphic lenses, which flatten depth while causing a noticeable curve distortion at the edges.  Together with his tendency to compose his frames in an almost perfectly symmetrical manner, Anderson’s preference for the anamorphic aspect ratio results in a diorama-esque affectation that’s blessed him with his own calling card while also cursing him with an easy target for parody by pop culture– this so called “twee” style is called out by critics as a manifestation of a preening aesthetist.  However, to fixate on the surface level of Anderson’s choices is to miss the point; his visual flourishes are always rooted in the story he’s telling.  Because many of his stories are ensemble-based, he employs the wider angle of view afforded by the anamorphic format as a way to put more of his characters in the frame.  Techniques like this are a major reason why his films are as rich dramatically as they are visually.

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS’ cinematography exhibits considerable growth on Anderson’s part, who is experimenting here both on a stylistic level as well as on a grammatical level.  Much of the film’s coverage eschews the conventional shot/reverse-shot language employed by narrative films since the dawn of the medium, opting instead to construct its individual scenes into elaborate master shots that use camera movement to change our field of view.  One particular scene from late in the movie comes to mind, where Eli meets with Margot at a bridge to come clean with each other emotionally.  Anderson dollies back and forth between lines, creating new compositions while revealing more of the scenery and playfully alerting us to the fact that they’re being spied on.  Anderson employs dollies, cranes, and Steadicam rigs to achieve this effect throughout, giving the film a distinct formalist air– which he then punctures with strategic jabs of handheld camerawork.  His camera mostly moves laterally or vertically along a two-dimensional axis, a technique that compresses depth and evokes that particularly flat diorama effect he’s infamous for.  Funnily enough, this approach ends up working to his advantage: on the few occasions in which he pierces his flat tableaus with a violent rack zoom, he manages to reclaim the rack zoom’s punk-rock origins while subverting our own expectations of his style.  THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS also sees a few other flourishes that cement his unique aesthetic, like his signature top-down perspective inserts (which are usually focused on hands or a small object), or his subtle in-camera speed ramps set to evocative rock tunes (of which this particular film boasts no less than two).

Like Yeoman, production designer David Wasco returns for his third consecutive tour of duty with Anderson, bathing the frame in a deliberate mix of bright reds, oranges, and pinks.  The result is a warm confection of a film, laced with a heavy dose of nostalgia and an autumnal melancholy.  Anderson’s films feel removed out of time, contained within their own separate universes, and Wasco’s eclectic production design contributes mightily towards that effect.  In THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, this isn’t only reflected in the eccentric and anachronistic manner of dress typical of characters in the Anderson universe, but also in the props, vehicles, and set dressings that all read as outdated but indistinct to any particular era.  Anderson’s vision of a highly fictionalized, almost-mythic New York is reinforced by the fact that the director and his collaborators actively go out of their way to hide prominent city landmarks or any aspect of the outside world that can betray the film’s meticulously-crafted sense of timelessness.

On the post side, Anderson collaborates for the first time with editor Dylan Tichenor, perhaps better known for his recurring working relationship with director Paul Thomas Anderson.  Tichenor balances the structural formalism of Anderson’s camerawork and compositions with jump cuts and other flourishes borrowed from the French New Wave.  Anderson and Tichenor divide the film’s story into chapters, signified by intertitles rendered in Anderson’s signature Futura typeface and designed to mimic an old novel, implying that the film was adapted from this book (which, of course, doesn’t actually exist in real life).  Tichenor’s edit is given a musical lift by returning composer Mark Mothersbaugh, who’s baroque electronic score hints at the upper crust affectation of Anderson’s characters, and by Anderson’s own eclectic mix of contemporary and unpretentious needledrops.  He pulls together such disparate acts as the Rolling Stones, Nico from the Velvet Underground, John Lennon, The Ramones, and Elliott Smith, blending them together into a coherent musical landscape that perfectly captures the lively vigor and melancholic longing of his characters’ interior states.  Just like he did in RUSHMORE, Anderson also incorporates Vince Guaraldi’s iconic cues from A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (1965), drawing further parallels between his characters and Charles Schulz’s ragtag crew of misfits.

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS is sometimes regarded as the quintessential Anderson film, in that the storyline and style most syncs up with the thematic fascinations and character dynamics that define Anderson’s particular worldview and fundamentally inform his work.  Like the aforementioned PEANUTS character Charlie Brown, Anderson’s creations are misfits even within their own families.  This leads to strange, off-kilter relationship dynamics serving not just as a source of great comedy, but as the core backbone of Anderson’s stories.  While his larger filmography trades in this exploration of stunted growth, it’s especially true of THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, whose characters are trapped in the same state of mind in which they felt at their prime, but refuse to acknowledge the need for growth or change.  This theme manifests in several ways, such as the innocent, childlike perspective that marks Anderson’s tone, or adult characters behaving irrationally like a child might.  He uses this tone to effectively (and affectionately) skewer the pretentious intellectual class– specifically, that worldly Europhilic flavor of which Anderson himself could be classified into.  As his career has progressed, Anderson’s body of work has been informed by this particular archetype: RUSHMORE’s privileged private school bubble hinted at it, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS’ East Coast Literati ecosphere firmly established it, and later works like THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004), THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007), and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014) would expand upon and perfect it .  While Anderson’s stories are admittedly marked by a fair degree of whimsy, he tempers them with serious, depressive issues like divorce, suicide, death, and regret.  THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS is all about the specter of regret and unfulfilled promise, harnessing these themes to impart Anderson’s message that true success isn’t some Rand-ian individualistic effort–  it’s a family affair.

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS debuted in 2001 to healthy critical reception, earning Anderson his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.  Indeed, until the 2012 release of MOONRISE KINGDOM, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS enjoyed a distinction as his biggest success story to date.  Even today, Anderson’s third feature is still regarded as one of his strongest and most intimate works, with the combination of a larger scale, a higher budget, and more production resources affording Anderson the opportunity to present himself for the first time as a polished, mature artist who had finally found his creative groove.

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via The Criterion Collection.


Produced by: Wes Anderson, Barry Mendel, Scott Rudin

Written by: Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson

Director of Photography: Robert Yeoman

Production Designer: David Wasco

Edited by: Dylan Tichenor

Music by: Mark Mothersbaugh