Something was definitely lost when the writing team of Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson dissolved after The Royal Tenenbaums, their last film together, came out in 2001. Anderson’s later films, written with Noah Baumbauch (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Fantastic Mr. Fox) and Roman Coppola (The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom), are all well-made, but are progressively more focused on style than substance. It is clear that Anderson has been coming into his own as an auteur since last year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, his best-directed film both from a technical and an acting standpoint. But it is also Wes Anderson’s first film without a co-writer, and it is just as clear that there is no one to reign in the twee. The Royal Tenenbaums, about a dysfunctional family of child prodigies who fall from grace, is his most heartfelt film, and the one that cuts the deepest emotionally.
The film begins with the opening of the fictional book on which it is based, and a prologue showing Royal Tenenbaum (played by Gene Hackman in one of his last and greatest roles) explaining crassly to his children that he is splitting up with their mother. We are then introduced to the rest of the cast: Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Huston), the mother who was charged with raising the children; preternatural businessman Chas (Ben Stiller), who got into the real estate market in his early teens and bought his father’s summer house; Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), their adopted daughter, a playwright who won a $90,000 grant in the 9th grade; Richie (Luke Wilson), a champion tennis player since the third grade, who became pro at 17 and won the US open three years in a row; and Richie’s best friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), who lived across the street. As Alec Baldwin intones at the end of this prologue, “virtually all memory of the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums had been erased by two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster.” The rest of the film is about the failed Tenenbaums moving back home after Royal feigns stomach cancer to stop Etheline from marrying her accountant, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover).
The film’s dark comedy strikes a perfect balance between fun and emotionally devastating. Scenes like Royal teaching his grandkids to be juvenile delinquents (in a fantastic montage to Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard”), Chas chasing the drugged out Eli (knocking a priest down a staircase in the process), and Margot’s Oliver Sacks-like psychiatrist husband Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) studying his patient bizarre patient Dudley Heinsbergen are juxtaposed with the complicated relationship with Richie and Margot, who provide Wilson and Paltrow with what might be both their finest roles. The final lyrics to Nico’s “These Days,” which scores a gorgeous slow motion scene of Margot getting off the bus, perfectly encapsulate the mood of the film: “Please don’t confront me with my failures, I have not forgotten them.” One scene in particular, after Richie hears back from a private eye hired to see if Margot is having an affair, marks a huge tonal shift in the film—and solidifies its place as Anderson’s best-written film.
The film is fittingly playing on Father’s Day in a double feature with The Shining, if you want to bring your Dad to see two films about terrible fathers. But with one of the best jukebox scores of all time and an amazing ensemble cast, it would make a fine day where you can impress your father with your superb taste in film. Plus it’s the best Ben Stiller /Owen Wilson comedy besides Zoolander.
The Royal Tenenbaums
dir. Wes Anderson
Double feature with The Shining