My first post on this blog began with this: “The first of his films that truly connected with me was the Royal Tenenbaums. It is about a family of genius’ lost in the world of adulthood- one that I was, and still am, terrified to begin. They return to the home they grew up in, brought together by the most unlikely of sources- their father, Royal, who had helped to tear them apart.” So you can imagine how excited, and nervous, I am to write a review and summary- or I’d rather say, “write a response”, to this film. The Royal Tenenbaums is my favorite of Wes Anderson’s, if not all, movies. It’s the first film where his style really takes off. He has finally perfected his camera technique- long-pan and slowed-down shots set to British pop. His rolling camera scenes are systematic and choppy, but also give his film a symmetric, artistic appearance.
I am always amazed at the length Anderson goes to, to create his vision. It’s obvious that, unlike many modern films, each set is a real place; there is no CGI, no green screen shots. Each individual set and prop holds great importance to him; he takes great responsibility in creating the world he expects his characters to inhabit. It’s not an easy task, but he doesn’t accept anything less than perfect. No matter the cost, the impossibilities, or time it will take, he knows what he wants, and he will go to great lengths to get it. For example, I heard him say on the film’s commentary version that this picture (above), which only is shown for a few seconds, could not be found. So he hired someone to paint, and hired a painter to paint her. That is true dedication. His style of film making is expensive and a lot of work, but it does create an aesthetic that is lost in modern film making, and that I personally find myself craving.
This eccentric film takes place in the Wes Anderson’s version of New York-a city that even the most seasoned natives would find unfamiliar. He even goes as far as blocking the Statue of Liberty from view when shooting. This gives his film the same air of mystery and illusion that each of his films contain.
It opens with two long, narrated openings that remind of Max’s club montage. These are used as introductions to the characters and their pasts.
Etheline and Royal, separated parents, had three genius children: Chas is a math and business prodigy. His brother Richie is a star tennis player. He is the only child accepted by Royal, and invited to Royal’s traditional coming-of-age outings. The invitation is not offered to his siblings. Their adopted sister, Margot, is a playwright, like Max in Rushmore. She has a wooden replacement for a finger she lost when she was fourteen. A relative of her real family accidentally chopped it off. Eli Cash, the Tenenbaums’ neighbor, is Richie best friend. He is envious of the Tenenbaums’, and wishes that he was one of them. He yearns for their quirky opportunities, and media recognition.
As the Tenenbaum children grow into 30-some year old adults failure, catastrophe, and regret buries all memory of the celebrity they held in their youth: Chas, now a father of two, is a widower obsessed with safety. Richie has given up tennis after a humiliating match caused by a broken heart. Margot hasn’t written a popular play in years, and now spends a disproportionate time in the bathroom tub watching TV. They are locked in an age of pubescent stagnation, unable to cope with the realities and failures of adulthood. Eli, however, is now a fashionable writer, (though not a well-reviewed one) and is enjoying the fame he was always jealous of as a child.
As I said at the beginning, they are healed through a reunion brought about by their father, who is not motivated by the love he has for his children, but by petty jealousy. He is warned that a man is moving in on his wife. (Even though they have separated, they are still legally married.) He does not want the status quo to change, and therefore decides to win her back. He claims to be terminally ill, and wheedles his way into her home, where his children are also staying for the time being. (He was evicted from his hotel and needed a place to stay.) Henry Sherman, the man attempting to woo Etheline, is not impressed.
Love Triangle- the Second Generation: Margot is married to Raleigh, a psychologist. Margot is having an affair with Eli. Raleigh is suspicious and confides in Richie. Richie is in love with Margot. She is the reason he did terribly in that tennis match. They hire a private investigator. Eli tells Margot that Richie is in love with her. The private investigator finds a history that involves an unknown smoking habit, and multiple affairs. This devastates Richie. Richie attempts to kill himself. He survives. Margot and Richie confess their love for each other.
Love Triangle- the First Generation: Henry investigated Royal’s cancer claim. He finds it false. Royal had been using Tic Tacs as medication. Royal realizes that he truly does love his family after he is thrown out. This newfound epiphany inspires him to sign the divorce papers. He wants Etheline to be happy. This does not return his family’s respect.
Ending: Things gradually get better. Margot releases a new play. It is based on her family. It receives mixed reviews. Eli is in rehab for a mescaline addiction. Richie teaches a children’s tennis class. Royal has a heart attack. Royal dies. Chas is the only witness to his father’s death.
What makes this film so powerful is its underlying themes of death and regret. The Tenenbaum children cannot live up to their old glory. When they realize this, their maturation stops. They stagnate. Life gets in the way, and it’s too much for them. In psychology, being an adult means the continuous struggle between generativity and stagnation. To me, being an adult means acceptance of past failures, the resolution to regrets, recognition of age, and the resulting enthusiasm for future endeavors. Before Royal returns, the children are lost in the world of adulthood. They are confused about their past, stuck in the present, and wary of the future. Royal creates a domino effect of self-introspection, and identity acceptance. While the family is together, they don’t feel as isolated.
Example one- Chas is still suffering from the death of his wife. While Royal’s insensitive argument that he is having, “a nervous breakdown”, and hasn’t, “recovered” from his wife’s death. What Royal says begins to gradually change Chas. He is terribly sad, and fixates that energy on his children’s security, and his hatred of Royal. He understands this, but facing it is too painful. However, by the end of the film, after facing his instability (he attacked Eli-you’ll have to watch the film to figure out why) he finally releases his repressed emotions. He tells Royal, “Dad, I’ve had a hard year.” That is one of the most moving parts of the movie for me.
Example two- When Richie is trying to come to terms with his love for Margot, he goes to Royal for advice. While Royal’s presence was not enough to stop his son from attempting to commit suicide, it is enough to help him come to terms with his feelings. Again, it all comes down to emotions. Though Royal lies A LOT throughout the film, by the end of it, his sincerity is truly touching.
Example three- Royal takes Margot out for ice cream to talk to her about Richie’s feelings. She tells him that she cannot stay long, and isn’t interested in talking, but one look into his father’s hurt eyes and she reconsiders. It was probably the first time she saw that her father cared. He would always introduce her as his adopted daughter, Margot. But for the first time, she was just his daughter.
This was the first Wes Anderson film that really touched something within me. People always say that everything will be ok. I never believe them. But this movie helped me understand. You may not be a child-genius, a suffering lover, or a widower, but we all have regrets or sadness that can debilitate us without notice. We all have baggage that slows us down. This movie helped me understand that there’s always someone, no matter how unexpected they may be, that help you move forward. There is always hope, and everything gets better, even if the positive change is gradual.