THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001)

PrintE-mail Written by J. R. Southall

Now known for Fantastic Mr Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson came to the world’s attention with Rushmore in 1998, before The Royal Tenenbaums put him on the map three years later. His detached, nostalgic sensibility and skewed humour places him in the same arena as the Coen Brothers, and The Royal Tenenbaums is a tragic comedy in the vein of J.D. Salinger’s post-Catcher in the Rye Glass family stories; indeed the film takes the form of a visualised novel, with on-screen chapter titles and plot descriptions, and a third person narration by Alec Baldwin. It is a qualified achievement, distinctive and original but also distancing and lacking in warmth, less successful maybe than the ostensibly similar The World According to Garp.

Following the fluctuating fortunes of the Tenenbaum family, the film centres around their huge townhouse in what might be the 1950s but is actually contemporary New York. The six-minute prologue dispenses with the departure of the Tenenbaums’ father in non-chronological order, first presenting us with Royal (Hackman)’s expulsion then introducing us to his three over-achieving offspring one by one. Firstly there is Chas (Stiller, once grown up), a business prodigy, and then the adopted Margot (Paltrow), already a successful playwright before she hits her teens. Then there is Richie (Luke Wilson as an adult), an adolescent tennis sensation. Their mother is Ethel (Huston), as distracted a presence as the father she throws out.

Twenty-two years later Royal Tenenbaum finds himself homeless and pretending to have cancer, in order to wheedle his way back into the home of his empty, directionless adult children. Thus begins what passes for a plot, as the Tenenbaums start the process of learning what are the important things in life, having been raised to appreciate only success as its own measure.

Anderson’s films are filled with an incredible amount of affectation, and this is no different. Everything, from the performances to the artfully conceived plot diversions, sings of artifice and pretension. Yet somehow, this absolutely works, finding a unique balance between stillness and freneticism and managing to persuade us of the humanity of its over-caricatured characters. From Danny Glover as Etheline’s suitor to Anderson favourite Bill Murray as Margot’s husband, there is a richness and diversity among the supporting cast that Anderson convinces us are real. He even casts the Wilson brothers as friends despite there being roles for them as siblings, in the ultimate artificiality.

It’s a brilliant but perhaps meaningless endeavour, its points too blunt or too cryptic to fully involve. Nevertheless it’s a dazzling experience and one that pretends towards an emotional engagement that never quite materialises, and in this Criterion Blu-ray edition receives its most comprehensive possible release.

Extras: Director’s commentary, With the Filmmaker portrait, interviews, behind the scenes, outtakes, The Peter Bradley Show, trailers and more

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: WES ANDERSON / SCREENPLAY: WES ANDERSON, OWEN WILSON / STARRING: GENE HACKMAN, ANJELICA HUSTON, BEN STILLER, GWYNETH PALTROW, LUKE WILSON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW


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