The Royal Tenenbaums

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS

8/10

USA 2001 : Wes Anderson : 106-110 mins

An unseen narrator (Alec Baldwin) barrels us through 30 years in the annals the over-achieving Tenenbaum clan headed by shyster lawyer Royal (Gene Hackman) and his archaeologist wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston). They raise a ‘family of geniuses’ in Anderson’s stylised vision of a fairytale New York: tennis champ Richie (Luke Wilson), financial whizz Chas (Ben Stiller) and playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow). But at the height of the children’s success, Royal walks out – resurfacing 20 years later, supposedly desperate to have a family again, now that he’s (supposedly) at death’s door. But this is the last thing the kids need, having matured into depressive, neurotic failures.

If this is a sketchy synopsis, that’s because the film is itself nearly all synopsis: Anderson tells his entertainingly unlikely story in a dazzling array of compartmentalised episodes, using narration, copious on-screen titles (in his preferred ‘futura bold’ typeface) and countless other bits of cinematic shorthand. His approach is compulsive-obsessive, a catalogue of characters and events that ends up being as much a crazily enjoyable board game as a movie, even if the relentless flood of detail and incident can be as suffocating as it is exhilarating. While most of the actors are restrained by the chess-piece rigidity of their characters, Hackman is free to roam as the ‘wild-card’ Royal – his isn’t just the best performance in the film, it’s really the only performance, pulling the whole project into shape around itself.

As in Rushmore, Anderson’s expert use of music is crucial – so expert, that watching the set-pieces scored to Paul Simon, Nico and Elliot Smith, it’s easy to think you’re watching a great movie, some kind of masterpiece. Elsewhere, Anderson comes over as a talented show-off, frantically filling the screen with incident and quirkiness to distract us from the shortcomings of his script, co-written with Owen Wilson. Appropriately enough, Wilson’s character Eli Cash personifies these limitations – barely developed or integrated, he’s given a few cursory traits and oddities and hurled into the mix with everyone else, in the hope that it’ll all somehow cohere. Miraculously, it almost does.


30th March, 2002
(seen 26th January, Cineworld Milton Keynes, and 6th March, Warner Village, Newcastle)

For a more in depth review click here

For an interview with Wes Anderson click here
For an interview with Owen Wilson click here

by Neil Young
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