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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #159: The Royal Tenenbaums

I suppose it would be possible to run into a character from Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) in real life, but the odds of running into that entire family seems next to impossible. The unique filmmaker’s third film ups the ante from his previous film Rushmore, so of course things become quirkier as he further advances towards his current masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Royal Tenenbaums has all of his usual visual styles, musical preferences, and of course two of his usual collaborators, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. The story is very “Wes Anderson,” so if it is your first time watching one of his films you may be caught by surprise, as I was when I first watched it in 2002. The film was nominated for many awards and is described as a comedy-drama, but there not many moments when you will be laughing out loud. As the film open with Alec Baldwin narrating the various exploits of the Tenenbaum children you have to wonder if the whole thing is not some long elaborate joke thought out by Anderson and Wilson his co-writer.

All three of the Tenenbaum children are described as prodigies in their own fields, with Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller) being an expert in finances, but for some reason always wear the same red jumpsuit along with his two children Ari and Uzi. Brother Richie (Luke Wilson) is a tennis champion who retired after a meltdown on the court and then spent months living on an ocean liner. Adopted sister Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a playwright who has many secrets kept from the family, and who is married to neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray, sporting a beard). Finally there is Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), a close friend of the family for years who gained fame for writing Western novels.

The parents of these oddballs are of course equally outlandish, yet patriarch Royal Tenebaum (Gene Hackman) stands out due to his failures instead of his achievements. Whereas his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) is a famous archaeologist and author, Royal is a disbarred lawyer with a poor track record as a father. He once shot one of the kids with a BB gun, can be blatantly insensitive, but compared to the rest of the characters he almost comes off as the normal one, maybe it is because Hackman stands out from Anderson’s material. Yet he has a lot of fun as Royal, especially when he goes out with Ari and Uzi for some fun, which in his mind consists of shoplifting and dog fighting.

The reason for all of these characters to come together is because Royal claims he has developed a form of cancer that leaves him with six weeks to live. He wishes to make amends for his past mistakes, but his children are not quick to forgive or even to believe him. Given past behaviour they probably shouldn’t.

A movie could probably be made about each of these characters separately, but put together the result is almost too quirky for the movie’s own good. What is a first-time viewer of Anderson’s work to make of the character of Pagoda (Kumar Pallana) a family servant who was once an assassin that stabbed Royal?

All of the actors in The Royal Tenenbaums are all very effective in their assigned roles, the writing was so good it ended up influencing both Arrested Development and Alec Baldwin’s role in 30 Rock. However if you are new to Anderson’ world, it may not be the best place to start.


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