Review of “The Royal Tenenbaums”

Released in 2001, The Royal Tenenbaums is in my opinion one of Wes Andersen’s finest artistic achievements.  The dark comedy laces the lives of three prodigy children whose accomplishments as adolescents are juxtaposed with their anticlimactic adulthoods. The film renders a cleverly ironic and brutally offbeat humor that is as amusing as it is twisted. In short, it is a story of how Royal Tenenbaum, a role played by Gene Hackman, fakes stomach cancer in hopes of reconciling some sort of relationship with the family he had abandoned a decade prior. However, it’s difficult to discern whether his motives to reunite with his ex-wife and estranged children are rooted in the desire to rebuild a relationship or if it has to with the fact that he is broke and has been evicted from his apartment.  The bizarrely tragic yet contemplative comedy, features several successful actors such as: Anjelica Huston, Owen and Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover, Gene Hackman and Bill Murray.  For those unfamiliar with Andersen’s work, this is an almost staple cast for all of his films.  His use of Mark Mothersbaugh’s music in his movies, along some old school eighties songs, is also typical.

Wes Anderson’s stylistic and shamelessly personal approach towards filmmaking renders his work inimitable.  He emerges as an inspiration for my own work because his films are, in many respects, extensions of his peculiar personality.  There are several distinctive ploys he has been known to use, which lends his work the unique character that sets his films apart from others.  For instance, more often then not, I’ve noticed that there is an indisputable symmetry in the composition of each of his opening frames.  Although this minute detail can easily be overlooked, it renders a subconscious satisfaction. It goes without saying that his films give the audience an insight into his bizarre, yet beautiful, perception of reality.  Andersen’s incessant use of wide-angle lenses and bird’s eye view makes for unusual perspectives, as does his use of angles. Over the course of his career, he has crafted a unique style through eloquently employing a tapestry of mediums manifesting films that are, in my opinion, both conceptually and visually unparalleled.

His understanding of color and composition is evident through the idiosyncratic costuming of his characters and the bizarre backdrops he constructs.  In The Royal Tenenbaums, Luke Wilson’s character Richie Tenenbaum sports the same attire throughout almost the entire duration of the film: a sweat band and slacks (as seen in image).  It is only after he unsuccessfully attempts to commit suicide that he sheds his former clothing and shaves his head.  From this point on in the film, he is presented in a relatively somber light.  This shift is illustrated in part by the reserved nature he takes on, but also via the absence of the sweatband and the fact that he dresses quite differently.  Aside from his bandaged wrist and shaved head, his wardrobe change reflects his psychologically altered state of mind.  It’s Andersen’s attention to seemingly simplistic details such as attaching symbolism to clothing that yields his work so brilliant.

Relying solely on a flawed protagonist to suffice, the absence of an antagonist in Wes Andersen’s work also sets his films apart.  In general, his characters have the tendency to be privileged social outcast whose greatest achievements in life have already passed them by. Margo, Richie and Chas Tenenbaum were far more successful as children then as adults- their passed accomplishments overshadowed by their anticlimactic adulthoods. Portrayed as narcissistic and apathetic, they harbor traits that emerge ultimately as their fatal flaws, lending the story an almost Shakespearean overtone. The need for an antagonist thus renders useless, as the protagonist is self-destructive and therefore habitually responsible for his or her own downfall.  Having the main character be their own worst enemy is, by Hollywood standards, a fairly unconventional approach towards character development- which is yet another reason why I appreciate this particular directors approach: he doesn’t conform to the expectations of the film industry.

Another example of this stray from the norm is the fact that there is very little insinuation of sex, let alone sex scenes, in any of his movies- whereas most filmmakers exploit the aforementioned in hopes of making a pretty penny at the box office. The complicity of love is another thread running through Andersen’s work. Portrayed as something unattainable, the intimate relationships presented in his films are incessantly depicted as hopeless.  In The Royal Tenenbaums, Richie Tenenbuam falls in love with his adopted sister Margo (Gwyneth Paltrow).  This perverse predicament (portrayed in image) is paralleled with the Tenenbaum family’s evident inability to display the slightest sentiment of intimacy towards one another, even an embrace as harmless as a hug is portrayed as incredibly awkward.  Given that his work has the tendency to serve as a means of self-reflection, one can assume that this pessimistic perception on the issue of love and its inability to survive the unpredictability and injustice of life is an insight into Andersen’s own experiences.

I find that the most intriguing aspect of The Royal Tenenbaums is the fact that the entire story is presented in the vein of a novel.  Andersen is renowned for his atypical approach towards delivering a storyline.  Rushmore, an earlier film of his, was presented as a stage play and his last piece, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, as a documentary.  This unusual manner of delivering a feature film renders his work truly unique.  Yet, unfortunately, his refusal to conform to various Hollywood standards has denied him the rightful recognition he deserves.  This is not to say, of course, that his movies haven’t been well received, it just that by and large he hasn’t been granted the appreciation he merits from the media and public alike.   His failure to dominate the mainstream is perhaps rooted in the masses inability to fully grasp the beauty of what he is trying to do.  Andersen, on the other hand, seems unwilling to compromise his style in order to appease the public, which is another reason why I harbor such respect for the man.  So he substitutes sex with bizarre incestual love interests, the staple antagonist for a flawed protagonist and in doing so swims against the mainstream.  It is for this reason that Wes Andersen emerges as such an inspiration to me. He not only defies the limitations of the medium, but redefines what they can be. The Royal Tenenbaum serving as a testament of his unparalleled methodology towards filmmaking.


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