Wes Anderson’s Criterion Journey: The Royal Tenenbaums

There is a scene in The Royal Tenenbaums that always mesmorizes me. No matter how many times I see it, no matter what else I’m doing, I instantly get swept up in its beauty and simplicity and come to admire it even more than before.

Margot and Richie have been in love for a long time, dating all the way back to their childhood. Summoned back home after a prolonged absence, they arrange to meet at, “the pier by way of the Green Line Bus.” As Margot steps off of the bus, and spots Richie awaiting her arrival, their eyes lock and their expressions soften and not a word is needed to understand how these two truly feel about each other. They are wearing nearly identical colors, casting off a dreamlike hue as if they are the only people in each other’s worlds that stand out. Nico’s cover of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” plays over the scene, suggesting that these two never really got to be together and that their love as a whole was a missed opportunity.

Of course, none of this takes into account that Richie is Margot’s brother and Margot is his adopted sister. It wouldn’t truly be a Wes Anderson movie if there wasn’t one absurd little tidbit that threw the entire idea of this potential courtship out of whack. Richie later discusses his love for Margot with his father, Royal (played by the legendary Gene Hackman) and the following exchange takes place:

Royal: “It’s illegal though, right?”
Richie: “I don’t think so, we’re not blood related.”
Royal: “But probably frowned upon. But then again, what isn’t these days?”

That line made me wonder about what the reaction would have been if The Royal Tenenbaums had been released these days. Would there have been a giant backlash towards the Margot/Richie relationship on the internet or would they have been in the clear thanks to Game of Thrones’ portrayal of full-fledged incest? It’s safest to assume that people will get offended about anything that is even the slightest bit controversial. But as I rewatched the film recently, I realized two things: 1) I’m glad that certain movies were made before the advent of social media and 2) I really miss seeing Gene Hackman in new movies.

Probably a lot more than the other people in this movie missed his character.

Royal Tenenbaum opens the film by informing his children (Richie, Chas and Margot) that he and their mother, Etheline (the multi-faceted Angelica Huston), are splitting up. Instead of following through with a divorce, he just leaves and goes to live alone in a hotel. Richie is fairly despondent over his father’s departure, but the other two kids are nonchalant in response to the news. That may or may not have something to do with Richie being the only one invited to attend outings with his father (while the other two sit at home), or Royal stealing money from Chas’ safety deposit box, or Royal never making a real attempt to understand his adopted daughter. When the film transitions to present day and Royal learns that Etheline plans to marry her accountant, Henry Sherman, he pretends to have stomach cancer in order to win her back and finally gain the affection of his children. Not exactly father of the year material.

In addition to being an absentee dad and trying to con his family, Royal also often exhibits boorish behavior towards his wife and children. Why in the world would we ever care about a protagonist who’s such a selfish prick? That’s the question that Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson, who also co-stars as the Tenenbaums childhood friend, Eli, explore in the director’s third feature film. The answer is hinted at in the title: the movie is called The Royal Tenenbaums because every family member’s life trajectory was dictated, mostly for the worse, by their relationship with Royal. Will he rise to the occasion and make amends before his family destroys itself from within?

Anderson wrote this part with Hackman in mind. There aren’t many actors who can portray a real bastard, but then turn on a dime and instantly gain our sympathy. That element is critical to understanding Royal: he’s driven by selfish desires, but that greed was caused by loneliness and perhaps a snippet of regret. He aims to re-establish himself as the family patriarch because he misses being part of it. The cancer story fools most of them, but not Chas. I don’t even think it’s the fake illness that Chas doesn’t buy. No, he is skeptical because he doesn’t believe his father would ever come back without an ulterior motive.

One of the great talents of Anderson’s is his knack for taking a comedic actor and having them play against type. Owen Wilson in Bottle Rocket and Bill Murray in Rushmore are two prime examples. Ben Stiller as Chas is probably my favorite, and one of the best displays of his considerable talent. Withdrawn from society, obsessively overprotective of his two sons and instantly distrusting of his returning father, Chas is an island of unto himself that’s about to be decimated by an erupting volcano. Stiller brings the quirks that he’s known for, but doesn’t play them for laughs. If Chas isn’t in control of a situation, he paces nervously and fidgets endlessly while he comes up with his next idea or retort. He and his sons wear matching track suits, because what’s more practical and fitting for all situations than a track suit?

It isn’t until near the end that he opens up to Royal, and admits how hard things have been since his wife died. In a way, it’s the most important relationship in the movie. Chas is the hardest person for Royal to win over because they are equally stubborn, and more alike than they’d care to admit.

I don’t mean to gloss over the oddball Wes Anderson humor (of which there is plenty) or not give the other characters their due. This was Anderson’s first ensemble cast, chalked full of actors he worked with previously and new faces that you’re surprised to see (Danny Glover as the shrewd yet kind accountant, Henry Sherman, and Alec Baldwin as the narrator take the cake here). It’s also where he fully embraces his trademark style and never looks back.

But to me, the relationship between Royal and Chas anchors the film. A smart choice to make the story more appealing to casual audiences, and yet you can still have an absurd romance between siblings and Eli driving his car into the Tenenbaums’ house. However, it’s not all on Anderson to alter his style to appease a larger number of people. Audiences who seek out his films have to know going in that they are in for something different. Something that will leave them scratching their heads in-between the laughs and tender moments.

That’s kind of how life is, right? Trying to make sense of this chaotic, ironic world and find happiness is an endeavor that we all take on. Anderson trusted Hackman and co. to dial up the former but never lose sight of the fact that their characters were searching for the latter.

What a splendid job they all did.

(Collector’s note: the criterion blu-ray contains a pamphlet that lays out each room in the Tenenbaum household, complete with descriptions and illustrations of each person’s belongings. You can say what you want about Anderson, but the man carefully plans every detail of his films. Takes a lot of dedication and hard work to pull that off.)

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