Films You Should See: The Royal Tenenbaums

family photo of large family Royal Tenenbaums

Wes Anderson’s 2001, ‘The Royal Tenenbaums,’ is a quirky and stylized world with colors so vibrant, characters so memorable, they’ll become engrained inside your head. They’ve been and continue to be stuck in mine. ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’  orbits the oddball Tenenbaum clan, and Gene Hackman nails the role of Royal Tenenbaum, the family’s unfaithful and elusive patriarch. Beyond the surface, the film’s got this raw, yet precisely manicured vibe, weaving a narrative that’s both visually striking and features storytelling magic. 

If you’re a child featured in a book about you and your siblings called ‘Family of Geniuses’ there are only two options for your future, you become a massively successful adult or your life crashes and burns. The film skillfully blends humour and the melancholy of its characters. It captures the essence of an imaginary novel with its fictional locales. In simplistic terms, ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’, is a film about people who peaked too early in life and are stuck in their pasts. 

The movie throws you into the notion of coming home, but not in the fairy-tale way you’d wish for. ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ dives into this family reunion after decades of screw-ups, backstabbings, failures, and wounds that won’t heal physically or mentally. Hackman’s charm is all intoxicating; he doesn’t beg for anyone’s sympathy, just screws with the Tenenbaums. Royal spins this dark tale to Etheline, saying he’s on his deathbed with only six weeks left, and crazy enough, she falls for it. But his kids, especially the hardcore Chas, aren’t buying it. They stay stone-faced, unimpressed by Royal’s mind games, just another messed-up chapter in the Tenenbaum saga. So, when Royal feeds Etheline a story about his impending demise, it’s all a sham. He’s as hale and hearty as a guy living on a steady diet of booze, cigarettes, and three cheeseburgers a day can be. His supposed olive branches were just a front, a ploy to sneak back into the Tenenbaum family. 

Royal and Etheline’s trio – Chas, the money whiz, Margot, the playwright, and Richie, the tennis ace – carry themselves like born aristocrats. They were once child prodigies, but now they’re like lost royalty, longing for a prestige that might’ve never really been there. Chas channels his resentment toward his absent father, amplifying it when he loses his wife. Margot, an adopted soul steeped in rejection, withdraws into a cocoon, unable to write or step out, and in a marriage that doesn’t seem like a real marriage. Then there’s Richie the family’s bearded, long haired oddball, traveling the globe post-tennis breakdown upon learning of Margot’s union with the melancholic Raleigh St. Clair. We also have, Eli Cash, the childhood buddy in the Tenenbaums,  who rides the wave of success as a twisted, drug-drenched novelist who makes appearances on ‘Charlie Rose’ style tv shows.. He’s entangled in a romance with Margo, adding another layer to the families narrative. 

Upon hearing about his fathers ‘illness’ Richie leaves his world travels and turns his attention back to home. In a scene that I replay over and over in my head since seeing this movie is him at the bus station, Margot exits the Greenline bus and time slows, she locks eyes with Richie, carrying the heavy load of their messed-up history. He sits there, all the luggage placed behind him as he watches her come his way. There’s this distant music floating around, mixing with the backdrop of the ship. It’s more than a greeting; it’s a collision of everything they were and are. The haunting melody hangs in the air, mirroring the tangled emotions of the Tenenbaum chaos, but first, they embrace with a hug.

Figuring out the time ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ takes place is slippery, the props want you to think it’s landing somewhere in the late ‘seventies ’70s or early ’80, or something like that. Everything the characters own or use is from a time in the past, definitely pre-’90’s mainly. It’s set in New York, but not really. Wes Anderson, the director, paints his canvas mostly in this city, yet the New York he conjures up feels like a distant cousin to the genuine article—a half-broken metropolis, more jagged and worn-out than our usual view, where the cabs are on their last leg, rust eating away at their bones.

The movie captures a sense of longing for a time and place you’ve never experienced, maybe one that doesn’t even exist. Amidst this crafted unfamiliarity, Anderson’s films also make you think about grand things, something extraordinary in the ordinary. It breaks away from the confines of a specific era, creating a timeless vibe that seems to suspend its characters in a perpetual state outside the constraints of time. Released in 2001, the film’s characters and their world resist easy categorization within a particular decade or cultural moment, fostering an enduring appeal that defies the typical trappings of period pieces. It’s a film that sets a specific tone that works decades after its release. The soundtrack reinforces the films ageless quality. Anderson’s meticulous selection of songs spans various decades, seamlessly weaving classic rock, folk, and classical compositions into the narrative. The eclectic soundtrack serves as a sonic time capsule, contributing to the film’s enduring relevance by avoiding association with a specific era. The deliberate avoidance of contemporary cultural references in the dialogue further reinforces the timeless quality of the characters. The absence of specific mentions of current events or modern technologies ensures that the Tenenbaums’ world remains unanchored in any specific time period. 

At first glance, the Tenenbaum family’s attire and surroundings may suggest a mid-20th-century aesthetic, with elements of the 1970s and 1980s scattered throughout. However, a closer dive reveals a deliberate ambiguity and elusiveness. The characters’ wardrobes are a mixture of styles, ranging from Margot’s fur coats and Richie’s tennis headbands to Royal’s classic suits. It’s not just the clothing, it’s their interests and occupations. Margot’s plays and Richie’s tennis career evoke a bygone era. This results in a narrative universe where the characters exist in a world removed from the constraints of time, perhaps an alternate universe, one where emotions and technology have become stagnant. 

The Royal Tenenbaums’ released only a few months after 9/11, taps into the underlying warmth and despair that defined the city’s mood during that time. The film discards the typical well known New York imagery, Statue of Liberty, bridges, or skyline. This film acts as both a comforting embrace and a poignant stab to the heart simultaneously, paving the way for more films to embrace the twee sensibility. Its meticulously crafted scenes, whimsical yet ordinary characters and locations, and a thoughtfully curated soundtrack. This film is a wild ride, one I get on multiple times a year, mixing sweetness, humor, and a stubborn streak of eccentricity. Anderson’s third creation feels like uncovering a hidden gem in some forgotten library, revealing a tale set in a spellbinding New York City. Anderson’s Tenenbaums can be unconventional, and unapologetic in his vision of the world these characters exist in, which is not ours. It’s the tenenbaum-verse.

Nick Janke occasionally reviews older films you should see. Click on his name for other reivews.