The tagline for The Royal Tenenbaums reads: “Get ready for a remarkable family gathering.” With that said, it should be noted that one should also get ready for a very strange family gathering, and an annoying one, at that – one with entitled spoiled rich folk so submerged in their own self-importance that lack of self-awareness is an understatement. But like anything else, annoying, self-important jerks are still fun to watch – especially when lessons are learned all around and clarity from the fog of their unaware assholery – even if for a fleeting moment – is gained.
The Royal Tenenbaums is a Wes Anderson favorite. This is code talk for: it’s up there on the favorite-movies repertoire of an archetypical millennial hipster when grilled by other glazy-eyed hipsters at the newest, stark-white-and-stale-as-hell gallery opening. The storyline had promise: the estranged Tenenbaum family of misfits and child prodigies gathers again when their exiled father re-enters their lives, faking a terminal illness as a means to bring himself back into his family’s life. But The Royal Tenenbaums is meant to be a character-driven movie – we know that from the very beginning when each one is individually introduced by opening credits with a tight shot on their distinguishing facial expressions. Nonetheless, the characters are whiny for no real reason and don’t carry the film the way they were meant to.
At the top of the Tenenbaum family tree is Royal (Gene Hackman) and Ethel (Angelica Houston). Royal and Ethel are separated; Ethel is soon to marry her accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). Royal is the estranged father who cries wolf when he stops Ethel on the street, asking for some time with his family on account of his made-up illness. “I want my family back…I’m sick as a dog. I’ll be dead in six weeks,” he insists as Ethel dissolves into tears. “Wait a second. Okay, uh, I’m not really dying,” he continues. “But I need some time. Okay? A month or so.” Ethel looks at him, mirthless, emotional, confused. “Are you or aren’t you?” Royal answers, “Huh? What? Dying? Yeah.” And thus begins a slow pilgrimage by Margot, Richie, and Chas, Royal’s three children, and Eli, comic relief and Tenenbaum family friend since childhood.
As children, the Tenenbaum kids were an impressive bunch: Margot was the adopted, award-winning playwright; Richie was a tennis prodigy; Chas was an international finance genius who made a fortune off of breeding Dalmation-patterned mice. As adults, all three are a hot mess. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a heavy-smoking, eyeliner-donning sulk queen. She is extremely unhappy while married to Raleigh (Bill Murray), whose patience for her is not out of love but more mirrors that of the lucky kid who took the dateless hot girl to the dance but – as the expression goes – could never have his cake and eat it, too. Richie loves Margot. Yes, his sister. “Adopted!” others will uniformly insist. His sister, nonetheless. And he has a nervous breakdown at a tennis match, suggestively in reaction to Margot and Raleigh’s marriage. Chas’s wife dies in a plane crash and leaves him behind with their two young boys. He is now hyper-obsessed with safety, waking his kids up at the crack of dawn for intensely calculated, simulated fire drills. Reunited, the Tenenbaum offspring are like a flowered field littered with petulant landmines of personality disorders. Looks are deceiving; proceeding with caution is recommended.
As miserable as these people are, sympathy is hard to find. What exactly is making them so nihilistically esoteric? What audiences – including myself – need to understand ahead of time is that this is just the rhetoric of Wes Anderson’s style. Insistent self-expression in all factors may be the movie’s polarizing trait but it’s the part that viewers dig, also. Grown people look and act like cartoons but maybe the joke’s on us: it’s really just a caricature of human nature in a nutshell. The Tenenbaums are certainly peevish people but in the end, with Royal’s death, they understand the thing that connects them above their petulance: family. And with that turn, the film’s ennui-ridden contours come into focus. Hallelujah! The Tenenbaums’ purpose, while flicky for the most part, is finally clear.
If you wait long enough, The Royal Tenenbaums serves you a nice surprise of a punchline. Maybe even some cake. You just might not get to eat it.
Written by Dara Kim