The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Movie Review

I love period movies, but with one minor exception: I hate movie that takes place in the ’70s. I don’t know what it is about the era, maybe it’s the clothes that just completely turn me off. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s just something about that era that makes me want to turn the channel. The Royal Tenenbaums takes place in the ’70s. Either that or the world they live in has never progressed further than the ’70s. The clothes, the TV sets, the cars — urgh, just thinking about the ’70s makes my stomach churn. I don’t really know what is it about that era filmmakers like Wes Anderson just loves to go back to. Anderson is in his ’30s, so he was born in that era, but certainly he couldn’t have known what it was like to live through it, can he?

All that being said, The Royal Tenenbaums is about a family of supposed geniuses (“supposed” because, well frankly, I never saw them do anything particularly “genius-like” in the entire movie) that is as dysfunctional as their father is a jerk. The family is headed by the aforementioned jerk of all trades, Royal (Gene Hackman) and the well-mannered and caring Ethel (Angelica Huston). As the movie opens, Ethel has kicked the scheming and ethically-challenged Royal out of the household and she raises the kids by herself. Royal floats in and out of the children’s lives, but is otherwise an absentee father.

The Tenenbaum children are Chas (Ben Stiller), the business-wise kid; Richie (Luke Wilson), the tennis star; and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), the adopted daughter and playwright. The Tenenbaums have a neighbor in Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), who hangs out with the Tenenbaums and wishes he were one of them. Years later, a down-on-his-luck and financially-strapped Royal suddenly decides he wants to “get to know” his family again, and fakes stomach cancer to get back into the house. As you’ve probably already guessed, Royal is not only a terrible father and husband, but he’s also not much of a human being.

Director and co-writer Wes Anderson, working with familiar co-writer Owen Wilson, writes the Tenenbaums as quirky individuals, and this works for and against them. Of all the characters, only Royal, Chas, and Ethel come across as real human beings. The rest, like Margot, are completely fictional in every respect. No one is like that in the real world because such behavior is either unacceptable or too ludicrous for anyone to adapt. The same is true for Eli and Richie. They’re quirky and have their own little personality traits, but you’d never believe people like that actually exist in the real world.

Anderson and Wilson rely on snappy dialogue and absurd character behaviors to move the story along because, well frankly, there really is not much else going on. What is supposed to be “deep” meditations on love and family comes across as obvious and not overly deep. It’s a given that Royal will change his ways and that his children will eventually welcome him back into their lives.

That is not to say The Royal Tenenbaums is a bad movie. It’s actually a good movie, well above the average norm. It’s different, and it has good actors in good roles. Every thespian acquits themselves nicely, but their character’s situations are just too absurd to be taken too seriously. As it stands, the movie exists in a world of its own, and viewers can forget logical character motivations. People act, say, and do things in movies like these just to be odd. And it works — to a point. Everyone and everything is perfectly odd. It’s the kind of movie that makes you smile at its oddball behavior, but other than that? I didn’t much care for anything else about it. The movie reminds me of an especially weird episode of Northern Exposure.

Another fault I have with the movie is that for a movie about a family of geniuses, all of the characters are pretty stupid. These people have as much perception as the Dudley character, which is supposed to be (what else?) this oddball idiot that Margot’s husband is treating.

For example, Royal’s fake stomach cancer is obvious from the very start, and yet these bunch of “geniuses” never figure out his game, especially when Royal shows as much “cancer-like symptoms” as woofing down burgers and running around town without so much as a grimace of pain. Then again, in movies like these, logic takes a backseat to oddball quirkiness.

And there is plenty of that, that’s for sure.

Wes Anderson (director) / Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson (screenplay)
CAST: Gene Hackman …. Royal O’Reilly
Anjelica Huston …. Ethel
Ben Stiller …. Chas
Gwyneth Paltrow …. Margot Helen
Luke Wilson …. Baum
Owen Wilson …. Eli

Buy The Royal Tenenbaums on DVD