Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover, Bill Murray
Director:  Wes Anderson
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1. DTS 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  110 Minutes
Release Date:  July 9, 2002

“Are you getting a divorce?”

“Well, it doesn’t look good.”

“Is it our fault?”

“Well, we had to make certain sacrifices in order to have children…but, no...”

Film ***1/2

When I watched The Royal Tenenbaums, I couldn’t help but think of a story I heard when I was a kid about a father who placed his little boy on the kitchen counter and told him to jump into his arms.  It was supposed to be an exercise in trust.  When the kid jumped, the dad made no move to catch him…CRASH!  “Let that be a lesson to you, son,” he said.  “Trust no man.  Not even your own father.”

Royal Tenenbaum (Hackman) is such a father in the latest movie offering from director Wes Anderson, co-written by him and Owen Wilson.  This is the same pair that brought us the delightfully offbeat Bottle Rocket and the perfect character comedy Rushmore.  Now, they’ve taken their penchant for creating great characters and looking at life in an odd but truthful way, and created a film that walks a fine line between gentle humor and oblique sadness.

I was immediately struck by how much the picture reminded me of my favorite American author, J. D. Salinger, and his many works about the Glass family.  Like those immortals of literature, the Tenenbaums are a frightfully dysfunctional family where genius children have grown into neurotic failures as adults, where thoughtless words cut deep, and where bitterness and resentment are underrated emotions.

The movie plays like a novel, complete with chapters that intercut the plot the way the curtains did in Rushmore.  We get a prologue, where we can see the three Tenenbaum children as brilliant and gifted, and how those gifts weren’t enough to shield them from a careless father.  Chas (Stiller) may have been blessed with a head for finance and real estate, but still carries around the physical mark from when Royal turned on him in a dangerous game.  Margot (Paltrow) was penning plays and winning awards in her youth, until her dad’s ridiculously flip words gave her pause (that and the fact that as an adopted child, she never ceased hearing from him that she wasn’t his “real” daughter).  And Richie (Luke Wilson) was once the second ranked junior tennis player in the world and Royal’s favorite…until an emotional setback we don’t understand til later in the story caused his meltdown, and the disappointment that Royal never learned how to deal with.

Royal actually separated from the kids’ mother Etheline (Huston) when they were very young, but oddly enough, they never divorced…but even out of their house, Royal maintained just enough of a presence to keep his kids off balanced and insecure.  Not because he didn’t love them, mind you…just that his views on parenting were not quite the stuff of Dr. Spock.

And again, that’s just the prologue.  The meat of the story takes place 22 years later.  All three kids are merely shadows of their former glorious selves as adults.  Each is shielded and distant in his or her own way, and wear the effects of their defenses loudly and visibly.  Chas, whose wife had died in a freak accident, raises his two boys on his own, and they always wear loud red matching sweat suits.  Margot is married to a much older studious man, Raleigh St. Clair (Murray), but spends most of her time in the bathroom moping and smoking, shielded by black eye shadow and a fur jacket.  Richie is still the most sensitive of the lot and in many ways the most lost, wandering through life behind dark glasses and a thick beard. 

Their lives are all complicated by the sudden arrival of Royal, who announces he is dying and wants to spend his last bit of time reconciling with his family.  Before long, all the kids are back home, each with an individual reason.  Perhaps all are seeking one last shot at the childhood that eluded them and left them as has-beens as young adults, waiting for the promise of their youth to finally pay up.

The situation is both comical and touching.  Royal isn’t what I’d call a bad man by any stretch, but sometimes, he seems just the right mix of being hard to like and impossible to dislike at the same time.  Has he learned much in his two decades of near isolation from his family?  Maybe only that he needs them more than he thought, but how to love them still eludes him like the last digit of pi.  The presence of the first serious suitor in his wife’s life, Henry Sherman (Glover), isn’t making him any more calm or rational.

This is a superb cast from top to bottom, headed by the under-appreciated Gene Hackman in the title role.  He plays Royal with all the sorrowful ineptness of a man who doesn’t realize how bad what he’s saying sounds.  Gwyneth Paltrow as Margot is another career mark for the Oscar winning actress, who isn’t afraid to discard her normally pretty face and dig deep into a wounded character for the sake of the story.  Ben Stiller, whom many love and many hate, proves here his ability to go beyond the crude comedy he’s most known for.  And Luke Wilson makes Richie shine through though his face is almost shielded in anonymity for most of the film.

These are wonderfully rich, human, and flawed characters created by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, whose turn as neighbor Eli Cash I haven’t even touched upon.  Like Rushmore, this is a picture that works because the authors have faith in the people they’ve brought to life, and instinctively feel the potential for drama and comedy within them all.  There is sadness, to be sure, but not always of the tearful kind…more the kind that brings a wistful smile.

Video ****

This is an outstanding anamorphic offering from Criterion.  Wes Anderson’s unique vision for the Tenenbaum house and the world it exists in translates beautifully to DVD, with rich, vibrant colors (sometimes deliberately clashing, but to good effect), sharp, crisp lines and strong detail levels throughout.  The art direction really shines through with the way this disc renders the beautifully lit and photographed interiors.  Highest marks.

Audio ***

Though offering both DD and DTS 5.1 surround tracks, this is a character-oriented story, so don’t expect much from the rear stage or the subwoofer.  The best aspect of the audio, as with most of Anderson’s films, is the music, and right from the opening strains of “Hey Jude” played on a harpsichord, the songs are a plus, as is Mark Mothersbaugh’s lively score.  Dialogue is superbly clean and clear throughout.  A good effort.

Features ****

This is another impressive double disc offering from Criterion…Disc One contains a very good commentary track from Wes Anderson, who, in a mild mannered way, explains the origins of the project, the details of filming, his thoughts on the characters and more…a pleasant listen.  Disc Two contains the remaining features, with an introduction by Ben Stiller if you click on the Criterion logo at the top.  There is also a half hour portrait on Anderson made by master documentarian Albert Maysles, about a half hour’s worth of interviews with all the principal cast members (you can watch them all at once, or select the one you want to see first), two trailers, a gallery of artwork and photos, a 15 minute excerpt from “The Peter Bradley Show” featuring interviews with some minor cast members, a small number of cut scenes, and a nice insert featuring the drawings of Eric Anderson.  A nice package overall.


The Royal Tenenbaums is another triumph from the team of Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson…like their previous effort Rushmore, this is a solid, intelligent, and ultimately loving look at a group of people who are far from perfect but nonetheless endearing as they try to keep it all in the family.