The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

By Afra Nariman

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Directed by: Wes Anderson

Stars: Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, Bill Murray

Plot Summary

A story about the family of Royal Tenenbaum (played by Gene Hackman), Etheline (played by Anjelica Huston) and their three children who were all child geniuses. After Royal and Etheline separated, things began to slowly deteriorate. By the time they children have grown up, almost all memory of their early brilliance has been erased from the world’s memory by decades of betrayal, lies and failure. Much of the fault fell on the shoulders of their father, Royal. This film is about the unexpected reunion of the family who all return to home for one week and the drama that follows.


Wes Anderson is known for the creative storytelling style of his films. The Royal Tenenbaums is no different. With an unbelievable ensemble of big name actors and actresses, he paints a portrait of a complicated family, derailed by betrayal, lies and failure. In many ways this film is a deconstruction of an exaggerated, yet classic American Family. Each member of the family has their own life, their own interests and their own secrets.

The characters that Anderson has created in this comedic family drama, are extremely rich in story and background. The Tenenbaum kids were each extraordinary as children. Chas (played by Ben Stiller) was a genius of finance/business, Margot (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) was an artistically gifted playwright, and Richie (played by Luke Wilson) was a tennis prodigy. They grew up and became somewhat normal, and have come to resent their father, Royal, for the part he has played in their failures and/or fall to mediocracy. Each child, plus their family friend, Eli (played by Owen Wilson), has gone through ups and downs in their life. Over the course of just a few days, we get the sense of what each character has gone through, what their state of mind is, their passions, their fears and regrets, and what they want out of life going forward. Every character in the film is unique and interesting in their own way. You get a true family vibe while watching everything unfold.

The production of The Royal Tenenbaums is another wonderful aspect of the film. It’s a classic Wes Anderson production with its storybook filmmaking style, quick narrations and unbelievable art direction. Anderson’s unparalleled use of vibrant color palettes, aesthetic music, visual art, symmetrical settings and fluid cinematography are all on display in this film. From an art direction standpoint, it rarely ever gets better than Wes Anderson’s films. It feels like there is always something visually stunning or aesthetically pleasing happening on screen. In this film, the music always comes on at the perfect moments and the colors and visual art of each scene’s setting are always beautifully put together to counter the tension of whatever is happening on screen.

In The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson has created a movie that, similar to some of his other films, keeps you engaged and interested, yet appropriately at a distance. In this film, he has created a wall between the screen and the viewer that constantly reminds us that its just a movie… it’s not real, although at times it may feel realistic. Many people may fault him for this separation, as it disallows us to get too emotionally attached or affected, but it’s truly a part of the film’s brilliance and Anderson’s unique storytelling style. At times, the film deals with the concepts of death and suicide, which is haunting, but he never lets it feel too real for too long. This keeps us at that safe distance where we don’t get overly invested and melodramatic. Although we never get the full emotional potential of scenes, it is a distinctive skillet that Anderson exhibits in being able to accomplish that. We are getting told a deep, moving story about family drama, loss, betrayal, regret, forgiveness, honesty, failure, love and much more, while the whole time, we are still aware that its a movie. Yet, it still affects us in many of the ways great cinema should: we laugh, we feel sad, we think, we anticipate, we relate to the characters… we stay engaged the whole time. By incorporating the wall that keeps us at enough of a distance where we are constantly reminded that its a movie, Anderson allows us to objectively witness what unfolds on the screen, and judge for ourselves what should matter most and who we should root for. Ultimately, we are able to control how the film affects us.

This film is wonderfully produced, full of life and color, rich characters and brilliant style. It’s original in all the best ways, yet explores characteristics of the classic American family and the haunting complications that may derail their success, well being and happiness. It highlights the concept of regret and offers a humanizing and all encompassing study of how both sides of the regretful act should deal with the ongoing feud. The perpetrator, Royal (the father) spends the entire film hoping to right his past wrongs and heal the emotional wounds that he inflicted on his family over the years. The perpetrated, all three children, gradually learn to let go of their grudges and forgive their father for his mistakes in raising them. Full of comedy and drama, The Royal Tenenbaums is a remarkably enjoyable film and another example of Wes Anderson’s exceptional originality and creativity.


Rating: 4 out of 4.

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