The Royal Tenenbaums by Wes Anderson
Renowned director and screenwriter, Wes Anderson is known for having whimsical and almost puppet-like movies. The director first displays his talent in the late 90’s with films like Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998). With Bottle Rocket being Anderson’s first film, his popular style isn’t quite shown until three years later in the release of his second film Rushmore. In the infant years of the new millennia, Anderson masters his now famous visual style and creative use of emotion and human traits to develop his characters. This mastery would lead to his third and most sought after film, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).
The film tells the story of a father attempting to reunite his family after he himself, tore it apart. His three incredibly gifted children eventually part ways and go many years with little to no contact with each other whatsoever. Each character has their own personal struggles that they first have to identify, and then find a way to get over them. The father, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is an arrogant father who sees nothing wrong with his parenting style. He later realizes that his family wasn’t running away from him as much as he was pushing them away. The mother, Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Huston) is left to raise her three children when both she and Royal decide it best to separate. She becomes almost obsessed with their education and developing their extreme potential to become great. Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller) is the oldest of the three children and takes his role as older brother very seriously. He has always lived life by the numbers and when his wife dies in a plane crash he becomes obsessed with the safety of himself and his two sons, leading to him trading in his business suit for a red jumpsuit. Chas’s brother Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) was the only one who was noticeably loved by their father. The tennis star also had an extremely close relationship with his sister Margot, who was the only one who understood the darkness inside him. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is most likely the most mysterious character in the entire film. Being adopted at the age of two, she was always introduced by Royal as “my adopted daughter, Margot Tenenbaum” (Anderson, The Royal Tenenbaums). The once hopeful playwright severely struggles to grasp the idea of self-acceptance, yet she seems to want it more than anyone else. (Gonzalez).
The children are formally detached from their father via conference call at their dining room table to discuss their parents divorce. This not only sets the emotional tone of the film but also acts as a catalyst to the separation of the family. It’s not just the family that separates, but the characters themselves separate from who they were meant to be. Whether it is Richie having a breakdown during a tennis match because of his sister’s new husband, Chas’s obsession with the safety of his sons after the death of his wife, or even Etheline’s lack of intimacy with another man after her separation from Royal. All of these act as personal catalysts within each character's life.
Being that The Royal Tenenbaums is a tale of self-discovery and reconnecting with family it goes without saying that the viewer can easily connect with at least one of these characters. Even if it is Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) who struggles with addiction, lying, and a desperate urge to be a part of the Tenenbaum family. Wes Anderson does an excellent job of showing these hardships with intense detail. Anderson could have easily left out a large amount of detail and still produced an amazing film. One of his greatest qualities is being able to throw out mass amounts of detail and information and still hold the audience’s attention. Of course, he also needs good actors to fill out these roles and has developed the tendency to choose the actor first, then mold the character around said actors habits and attributes. The Royal Tenenbaums is Anderson’s first film where this process can really be seen.
Gene Hackman's 87 penchant for bobbing and weaving with his fellow actors, turning the screen into a sports arena; Bill Murray’s wistful, sad-sack withdrawal and real-life disenchantment; Gwyneth Paltrow’s tendency to singularize her characterizations and narrow things down to a finite set of gestures; Ben Stiller’s exaggeratedly physical, high-voltage comic attack (Jones). This rarely seen method makes the film that much more believable. It seems to give the actors an added advantage when trying to portray the character they are assigned. Instead of trying to fill every aspect of the character they can be themselves and smoothly develop through the highly emotional film.
The Royal Tenenbaums at a glance is extremely dark; however the majority of this “darkness” is balanced, if not overshadowed, by comedy and affection. On one end of the spectrum, you have the Tenenbaum’s love for each other. They don’t exactly depict the conventional way family members show affection to one another; however it is always there even if it is deeply suppressed. On the ladder end of the spectrum, you have Anderson’s first attempt at physical violence with an overhead shot of Richie Tenenbaum slitting his wrists in attempted suicide. The grouping of scenes goes from comedy to a dark depression and back to comedy in a matter of minutes (Seitz: 109). This type of emotional quick change has thrived in many of Anderson’s later films. Over the years, this method has evolved into more of a dry, slapstick comedy than an emotionally jarring experience. This evolved method can greatly be seen in his newest film The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). A perfect example of this would be when M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) is hanging from a cliff at the mercy of Jopling (Willem Dafoe). M. Gustave then delivers an eloquent poem thinking they will be his last words. At this point, the scene is far more serious than it is comical. Out of nowhere, Zero (Anthony Quinonez) forces Jopling over the cliff and falls to Gustave’s aid. The tone is still very serious until Gustave ecstatically shouts, “Holy shit! You got him!” (Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel). This being one of the many instances in which Wes Anderson gains inspiration from his past works.
These movies also have a recurring theme of running away from something. In Anderson’s 9th film Moonrise Kingdom (2012) this is seen the clearest. The movie tells the tale of two children who fall in love and run away from their homes and the damage they did. In the end, they have to return and face what and who they were running away from. In The Royal Tenenbaums, each character is either running away from themselves or the family. Chas Tenenbaum, who refuses to come to grips with his wife’s death, overcomes this when his two sons are nearly killed by a car driven Eli Cash and loses his dog in the same incident. During the same scene, the boys are saved by Chas’s father Royal. This acts as a fresh start for him and his father’s relationship which before was nonexistent. Comparisons like this can be made in all of his movies. Whether it is the lack of how to properly be a father in The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004); self-discovery in The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009); or even the use of plays within his films such as Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Moonrise Kingdom. All of his films have some sort of theme adapted from one or a collection of films prior (Tyree).
In Anderson’s movies, it is also never quite said exactly where or when the films take place. He does such a good job at hinting toward locations and time periods that the viewers often times don’t even notice that it was never once referenced. Throughout The Royal Tenenbaums, it is pretty safe to say that the movie takes place in or around New York City. Yes, the film was shot in Harlem and the iconic house does exist, but none of this is actually detailed. It can be gathered that Wes Anderson got his ideas of what the city was like through sources such as the Simon and Garfunkel, Midnight Cowboy (1969), J. D. Salinger, The French Connection (1971), and many others. All of these lace themselves within the movie so well and often that the viewer would have to have studied film to pick them up. Stylistically The Royal Tenenbaums can also be connected to such things as The New Yorker, which gave people who longed for the city a cartoon view of what they wanted so dearly (Seitz: 109).
When it comes to Wes Anderson’s style, most see it as a melting pot of mise-en-scene. Like many artists, musicians, and directors Wes Anderson had to get his inspiration from somewhere. Anderson derives most of his visual styles from movies starting in the 60’s. The scene, in which Royal Tenenbaum is attempting to connect with his two grandsons (Chas's kids), can clearly be connected to Richard Lester’s 1965 film The Help and 1968 film Petulia. Both films connect with this scene in that they both use editing designed alongside the music playing and encourages “an unabashed love of shenanigans” (Seitz, 2009: Part 2). The more one looks into the past of cinema the more influences one can see on Anderson’s work. In the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark (dir: Steven Spielberg), there is a drinking contest that is filmed using a stealth long take (Seitz: 116). This same style can be seen in instances where Anderson follows his characters around with as much fluidity as possible. One of his most famous sets being The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou which was a full boat cut in half just so Anderson could follow his characters from room to room without any cuts.
One of the more popular films his work has been compared to is the 1965 French film Pierrot le Fou (dir: Jean-Luc Godard). This is so because the film is nearly identical to Anderson’s 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom. The two films share many similarities despite the near fifty-year gap between them. If one were to switch the gender roles in Moonrise Kingdom, increase the character’s ages, and make the plot staggeringly more dark they would have a hard time separating the two. Both films deal with the two main characters running away from home and camp like environments, escaping to a “sanctuary”, and being pushed out by the very people they were running away from. They stick to a tri-color color palette with Moonrise Kingdom having blends of green, brown, and yellow. Pierrot le Fou, however, sticks to its French roots using colors such as blue, white, and red. Anderson and Godard both find success in the heavy use of symbolism through small objects such as the use of scissors as a type of “innocent yet effective” weapon. The two films are by all means not copies of each other, but this just shows how vast the area is in which Wes Anderson gets his inspiration (Palmer).
Older movies like Pierrot le Fou also carry with them a sense of visual balance and symmetry which Anderson is widely known for. It might be because of this connection that people are as obsessed with the symmetry in his films as he is. His obsession with symmetry has without a doubt been a massive contributor to his success over the years. This obsession can fully be seen for the first time in The Royal Tenenbaums. The Royal Tenenbaums also sparks the director’s interest in overhead shots. Although most of these shots act as a type of creative transition or in your face symbolism, they can also convey intense emotion. The best example being when the camera cuts to an overhead shot of Richie Tenenbaum’s writs draining into the hair covered sink. The amount of detail and thought that goes into each frame truly separates Anderson from other directors. Most directors are taught to avoid direct symmetry like this because it takes away from the realistic qualities of a film. It also makes it a lot harder for the director to smoothly transition from scene to scene. Anderson goes against these recommended rules for making a film, and it has greatly paid off (Crow). Pair this with his frequent use of whimsical / mafia-like music and a cinematic outburst of creativity is born.
When a person sees their first Wes Anderson film they either like it or they don’t, there is little to no grey area. If it weren’t for his films, directors wouldn’t have been inspired to make films such as Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Juno (2007), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and many others. Anderson’s third film The Royal Tenenbaums is his first of ten films to fully embrace his now famous incorporation of symmetry, awkwardly dry humor, and theater like performances. This perfectly imperfect mix has shot Wes Anderson to the top in the past decade. If it weren’t for Anderson’s decision to fully incorporate this new method into The Royal Tenenbaums, who knows where the director would be today. Over the years, his movies have not only inspired future filmmakers, but also inspire people on a daily basis.
Crow, Jonathan. “The Perfect Symmetry of Wes Anderson’s Movies.” Open Culture (March 9, 2014)
Gonzalez, Ed. “The Royal Tenenbaums." Slant” (December 4, 2001)
Jones, Kent. “The Royal Tenenbaums: Faded Glories.” Current (July 14, 2012)
Palmer, Landon. “The Stylistic Connections Between Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou.” Film School Rejects (July 10, 2012)
Seitz, Matt Zoller and Wes Anderson. The Wes Anderson Collection. ed. Eric Klopfer. Abrams, 2013.
Sietz, Matt Zoller, “The Substance of Style, Pts. 1-5.” Moving Image Source (March 30-April 13, 2009)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (USA: Wes Anderson, 2014)
The Royal Tenenbaums (USA: Wes Anderson, 2001)
Tyree, J.M. “Unsafe Houses: Moonrise Kingdom and Wes Anderson’s Conflicted Comedies of Escape.” Film Quarterly 66.4 (Summer, 2013)