The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

30 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How the hell am I supposed to feel towards many story elements within Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums?” It’s unusual, bipolar, and twisted…and I loved every minute of it. This is a very original, effectively deranged comedy that toys with audience’s emotions, delights in eccentricity, is wonderfully deadpan, and presents a memorable group of quirky characters. It’s smart and sophisticated, while you can also add “devilishly clever” to the adjectives.

This film is sort of like the flip-side of the usual feel-good family comedy-drama; if anything, it’s more like a satire on the genre. The family in this film is as dysfunctional as a movie family can get. First and foremost is Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), and yes that is his real name. Royal is the family patriarch who has left home abruptly and has lived in a hotel room on credit for years. He has left his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston), whom he has not divorced yet, and three children who have each grown up to be neurotic people with conflicts and issues. They are: Chas (Ben Stiller), who become a financial prodigy at a young age and is now afraid of more-or-less of everything; the adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) who was successful as a young playwright and is now married to an older man (Bill Murray) who hardly ever takes the time to know her; and Richie (Luke Wilson), a former tennis player who is in love with Margot (whom, let me remind you, is not blood-related to him). (Wait, what?)

There are other characters in the story, including Chas’ two young, personality-free sons (who seem to dress in the same identical athletic-wear every day); Royal’s loyal Indian servant Pagoda (Kumar Pallana) who…tried to murder Royal on one occasion (wait, what?); Eli Cash (Owen Wilson, who also co-wrote the film with director Wes Anderson) who writes Western novels that get mixed reviews and is like a member of the Tenenbaum family; and Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), an accountant who proposes to Etheline after 10 years with her as a client. This proposal gets the attention of Royal, who hasn’t seen his family in years, and so he decides to win back Etheline. How does he do it?…By faking a terminal illness. (Wait, what?)

So now the Tenenbaums are all together under the same roof, and it’s not pretty. With each odd personality trait and with a lot of resentment towards Royal, this is not a happy family in the slightest. Will they learn to love and respect one another?…Well yes, but it’s a bit of a bumpy ride getting there.

One thing I notice about Wes Anderson’s films are that each character is understated and he directs his actors in such a way that these people have all but lost their effervescence at some point in their lives. As a result, the actors are effectively deadpan for the roles. Even a character as broad as Royal is given the “whatever-seen-it” attitude. Thus, when the dramatic changes occur (such as Royal’s transformation from jerk to semi-respectful again), they’re interesting in the way they’re portrayed which is not over the top but with a suitable amount of wit, quirkiness, and understatement.

There are laughs in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” but the film is never “hilarious” in the sense that you fall out of your seat, rolling with laughter. The humor comes from cleverness in its satirical elements. And that’s another oddity of “The Royal Tenenbaums”—it seems to wallow in the task of making sure the audience is uncertain on how to feel during certain scenes. When you think you know how a scene will pay off, it suddenly turns around on you. it’s like there are some parts serious, some parts funny, in both the characters and the screenplay. How far does it go? Not too far, which is refreshing of itself. However, there are a few moments that took some serious bravery on Anderson and Wilson’s part, including the killing of a dog and the risky (or it is risqué?) relationship between Margot and Richie.

“The Royal Tenenbaums” is wonderfully offbeat and effectively deadpan. It’s a most unusual type of comedy in that it has a dark tone and a lot of weirdness to the story and characters. All of the characters are memorably original, the oddness is always present and strangely enough always welcome, and the film itself is intensely (entertainingly) silly. It’s weird, but I love it.

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