The Royal Tenenbaums: three child prodigies, convenience store lootings and the world’s weirdest parents

By on January 30, 2002

Director Wes Anderson returns with “The Royal Tenenbaums,” a quirky comedy tracing the life of the Tenenbaum family from childhood into freak adults. Anderson has the reputation of spinning dark comedies into provoking and almost comic strip-styled unreal tales in his past films, “Rushmore” and “Bottle Rocket.” “Tenenbaums” is no exception, and it manages to surpass the alienating manners and air of “Rushmore” and take viewers to a new wittier dimension in comedy.
Just shy of two hours, the film is divided into chapters, with pages shown with the respective Tenenbaum’s caricature. Within several weeks since the film’s debut, it has grossed close to $20 million, and recently earned Gene Hackman a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a comedy role.
Royal O’Reilly Tenenbaum (Hackman) is separated from wife Ethel (Anjelica Huston), an archaeologist, as the movie unfolds. Their out-in-left-field mentality is far-fetched and successfully rubbed off on their offspring, former child prodigies during their private school Manhattan upbringing. Royal’s current residence is at a deluxe hotel, filmed at none other than the Waldorf-Astoria.
After a series of twisted mishaps, each of his children end up back at Ethel’s home. Ethel’s on-and-off love interest is her colleague Dr. Harry Sherman (Danny Glover), who takes little time getting in the way when Royal returns home expecting his family back. The Tenenbaum children are embarrassed when their father returns, making residence in a lofty closet-sized room.
Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller) is the most outspoken opponent of his father’s arrival. Chas also lost his wife and is now a widower, a former financial genius and the father of nearly identical twins, Ari and Uzi, both matching their father in beamy red athletic suits.
Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the Tenenbaum’s adopted child and prize-winning playwright who is married unhappily to burned-out neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), whose bored, pimple-covered patient Dudley Heinsbergen (Stephen Lea Shepherd) actually asks him shamelessly to perform more studies on him. This subtle best-of-friends chemistry between Raleigh and his geeky patient encompasses a variety of moments when laughter shows the darker aesthetic that embodies the director’s unique style.
Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) is a former world-champion tennis ace who spent years roaming the open seas, hiding his love for his adopted sister Margot. Owen Wilson, who wrote the screenplay to the film with Anderson, plays wildlife buff and preservationist Eli Cash.
“Tenenbaums” and Anderson’s last “Rushmore” have a wide variety of soundtrack gems, all or most of which are rarities of classic singer-songwriters. Using less known tracks gives the twisted movie that layer of comfort with familiar sounds but no so familiar songs.
The New York set film features rare numbers “Judy is a Punk” by CBGB punks the Ramones, as well as “Stephanie Says” by the Velvet Underground and classic Brit-punkers the Clash with “Police and Thieves.” Singer-songwriters galore, Bob Dylan, Nico and indie-folk icons Elliott Smith and the late Nick Drake also grace the soundtrack.
The Tenenbaums have too many zany episodes to list. From Royal and his cohort and former butler Pagoda (Kumar Pallena) causing mischief and acting out Royal’s pretend demise, to Royal teaching twins Ari and Uzi to shoplift at the corner convenience store, Gene Hackman delivers a career best comedy performance in the quirkiest role in the movie. Certainly the Tenenbaum’s newfound head of the household is worthy as Anderson’s best character yet.
Grade: A-


About Mike Schoeck