The Royal Tenenbaums
November 2, 2003
Starring: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover, Bill Murray, Alec Baldwin, Seymour Cassel, Kumar Pallana, Grant Rosenmeyer, Jonah Meyerson,
Set to the same wistful, sentimental tone as A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), The Royal Tenenbaums begins with a hilariously edited montage (narrated dryly by Alec Baldwin) that introduces the Tenenbaum children at an early age. Chas (Stiller) is a financial wizard, Margot (Paltrow) an avant garde playwright, and Richie (Luke Wilson) is a world class tennis player. They are all child proteges whose lives gradually slide into dysfunction when their father, Royal (Hackman), is kicked out of the house by their mother, Etheline (Huston) for a lifetime of indiscretions.
Flashforward many years later and the kids have all grown up physically but not emotionally. Chas has lost his wife in a freak airplane accident and must raise his two kids by himself. Margot has stopped writing plays and gone through a series of failed relationships. At the height of his popularity, Ritchie suffered an emotional meltdown during a crucial match on television and hasn’t played since. Running out of funds and evicted from his hotel, Royal has also fallen on hard times. These various misfortunes draws everyone back home in order to make sense of where it all went wrong. The answer may lie in Royal who is the crucial lynchpin. In one way or another, he is responsible for his family’s dysfunction and must make things right again.
In many respects, the narrative structure of The Royal Tenenbaums is similar to Anderson’s previous film, Rushmore (1998). The latter film was structured like a play yet organized by month, while the former is arranged like a novel, complete with chapter breaks. However, Anderson and his co-screenwriter, Owen Wilson, are much more ambitious with Tenenbaums as they introduce many more protagonists, each with their own storyline. These storylines are distinctive and fully realized to such a degree that the characters develop past their eccentric quirks into emotionally attachable figures.
A literary presence can be felt throughout The Royal Tenenbaums and this belongs most significantly to J.D. Salinger and his short stories about the Glass family of genius children who never really grow up. Salinger has always been an important influence on Anderson’s films. The characters exist in an almost fairy tale atmosphere where precocious children talk like adults and irresponsible adults act like children. However, Salinger’s fiction plays an even more significant role in Tenenbaums. The Tenenbaum children, much like the Glass kids, peak too early in life and spend early adulthood trying to come to terms with fading glory. The characters in both Tenenbaums and Salinger’s fiction inhabit a mythical New York City that doesn’t really exist except in the romantic notions of their respective authors.
For all of its literary trappings, The Royal Tenenbaums is also very cinematic in nature. It evokes The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) with the way it introduces the Tenenbaum family (both films even use an omniscient narrator) and how it portrays an affluent American family in decline. However, Tenenbaums also feels like one of Hal Ashby’s films — in particular, Harold and Maude (1971) or Being There (1979). Anderson, like Ashby champions innocent dreamers in a cynical world that threatens to crush them. Both filmmakers also share an affinity for using popular music to reflect the emotions of characters in a particular scene.
Special Features: On the first disc is an audio commentary by Wes Anderson. As is the custom with Criterion, the commentary is indexed and given a brief description as to what is discussed. This is a wonderful feature that allows one to jump to specific topics. Anderson’s commentary is delivered in his trademark low-key style. He talks about the themes of Tenenbaums, recounts many anecdotes that occurred during the making of the movie and divulges all sorts arcane trivia. This is an informative commentary essential for any fan of Anderson’s work. The only drawback is that Owen Wilson, Tenenbaum’s co-screenwriter, or any of the cast do not participate in the commentary as had been the case with Criterion’s Rushmore DVD. Their presence is certainly missed.
The second disc carries the bulk of the supplemental material. First up, is the Scrapbook, which contains a hodgepodge of extras. There is a massive collection of stills taken by set photographer James Hamilton. A Public Radio program interview with artist Miguel Calderone, who painted the strange artwork that hangs in Eli Cash’s apartment. Included, as well, is a collection of Eric Chase Anderson’s paintings that hung in Richie’s room and his portraits of Margot. There is also a series of storyboards and the corresponding screenplay excerpts which gives a fascinating look at how carefully Anderson planned the visuals for Tenenbaums. Finally, the various book and magazine cover mockups that were used in the movie are included and allows one to study them since they were shown so briefly.
The Peter Bradley Show is a spot-on parody of The Charlie Rose Show that was also shown briefly in the movie. Bradley interviews some of Anderson’s friends who have been in his movies in small or supporting roles. This extra is really for the hardcore Wes Andersons who are already familiar with these people.
With the Filmmaker is a 27-minute documentary that originally aired on the Independent Film Channel. Famed documentarian Albert Maysles provides fascinating insight into the making of Tenenbaums. This isn’t the usual puff, promo piece that is usually found on DVDs, but instead a revealing look into the filmmaking process. Maysles shows how much hard work is involved and how much care and craft Anderson puts into his movies. This is a wonderful look at how he creates his cinematic worlds.
There are two deleted scenes that don’t add much to Tenenbaums and it’s obvious why they were dropped from the final cut. Finally, there is a 27-minute collection of interviews with the cast that can be viewed individually or as a whole. The cast speaks eloquently about their characters, in particular, Gene Hackman’s offers some fascinating thoughts about his craft and how he creates a character.
The folks at Criterion come through again with this top notch two-DVD set. Presented in a picture-perfect anamorphic transfer with a 5.1 DTS soundtrack and an excellent collection of supplemental material support a fantastic film. The Royal Tenenbaums is of the best movies the year it came out and is Wes Anderson’s strongest effort to date. This is an essential purchase for any film buff’s collection.