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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 22.38%
Average: 7.14%
Pretty Bad: 2.86%
Total Crap: 9.52%

14 reviews, 126 user ratings

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Royal Tenenbaums, The
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by Andrew Howe

4 stars

In 1996 writer/director Wes Anderson released Bottle Rocket, an engaging but ultimately insubstantial caper film that showcased the talents of Luke and Owen Wilson, neither of whom went on to achieve the success they deserved. The film gave no indication that Anderson was capable of something like Rushmore, which hit the screens two years later to critical acclaim and widespread public indifference. As one who has no qualms about using the word “masterpiece” in connection with the film, I was understandably concerned about Anderson’s ability to scale the same heights with The Royal Tenenbaums. He doesn’t, as it turns out, but it’s still a unique, hugely enjoyable fable which proves he hasn’t let success curtail his ambitions, and may well be the film that finally brings him to the attention of a wider audience.

It’s always dangerous when an independent director develops the necessary clout to command a respectable budget and convince “name” actors to participate in his latest opus, since the newfound power can cloud the vision that put him in the position in the first place. Anderson and long-time writing partner Owen Wilson have no intention of letting it go to their heads, however, as even a cursory reading of the script will attest. Urban fairytales rank just below comedies about terminal illness as a marketable commodity, and if it wasn’t for the reported enthusiasm of the cast it’s unlikely the project would have made it past the pitch stage.

Lest you think I exaggerate for effect, consider the following plot synopsis: headed by self-centred patriarch Royal (Gene Hackman), the Tenenbaums are a family of child prodigies whose ambitions are fanned by their supportive but emotionally reserved mother Etheline (Angelica Huston). There’s business magnate Chas (Ben Stiller), playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) and tennis ace Richie (Luke Wilson), and two decades of uncompromising expectations leaves them with serious emotional issues. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Royal’s attempts to weasel his way back into the hearts of his estranged family, which opens the way for 108 minutes of left-field humour, pithy commentary on interpersonal relations and an undercurrent of loss and despair that prevents it from becoming nothing more than an insubstantial flight of fancy.

Like I said, a PR dream it ain’t. The marketing department won’t be losing too much sleep, however, because the ensemble cast could sell a film about Sardinian village politics without breaking a sweat (in addition to the luminaries noted above, you’ll be treated to performances from the likes of Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, plus what appears to be the entire supporting cast from Rushmore).

Gene Hackman has been hell-bent on wasting his talents in recent times – Heartbreakers and Behind Enemy Lines won’t be winning him any new fans, but his efforts here remind us why we ever thought so highly of him. The character was written with Hackman in mind, so it’s no surprise it fits him like a glove – he’s never been an overtly emotional actor, but he’s adept at portraying inner suffering, and he brings a vulnerability to the role which prevents the rakish Royal from losing our support entirely. The concept of an aging father’s desire to atone for his mistakes is hardly original, but the script’s refusal to paint Royal as a truly repentant soul deftly avoids cliché, and Hackman nails it home with an exceptional performance that is alternately infuriating, thought-provoking and strangely affecting.

Stiller is hamstrung by a character that could have used considerably more room to move, but his loss is Paltrow’s gain. Her recent performances in Shallow Hal and Duets were suitably endearing, but here she reverts to the hard-edged territory she explored in P.T. Anderson’s Hard Eight. Margot has devoted her life to achieving a state of emotional isolation, and there are times when Paltrow’s depiction of her character’s detached lifestyle invites sympathetic depression. It bespeaks a range at which her previous efforts had only hinted, and if she continues in this vein she may find herself earning the respect usually reserved for serious character actresses.

Fans of Luke Wilson will be pleased to hear he’s afforded a role that makes considerably better use of his talents than Legally Blonde, despite being given precious little opportunity to exercise his natural charm (he spends most of the film sporting a ludicrous pair of shades, which reduces his emotional range). His brother Owen has written himself another enjoyable role as a spaced-out neo-hippy, while Bill Murray’s performance is on a par with his outstanding work in Rushmore, to the extent that I would have gladly cut a few of Hackman’s scenes to give him a little more room to weave his magic.

And that, unfortunately, is the film’s major weakness. Rushmore concentrated on three central characters, and the detail in which the script explored their lives enabled us to become invested in their fates, enhancing its finely tuned examination of love, loss and redemption. The Royal Tenenbaums has similar themes, but the number of characters jostling for the available screen time undermines its potentially poignant mediations.

This is particularly evident with regards Stiller’s character – he’s recently lost his wife, but he’s allocated so few lines of dialogue that it’s difficult to appreciate his loss. Anderson obviously intended for us to identify with the situation without the need for further elaboration, but the film’s status as a fairytale cloaks the proceedings in an air of unreality, making it difficult to forge an emotional connection with his creations.

Which is not to say you’ll be walking away entirely unmoved. One of Anderson’s strengths is his ability to communicate a great deal of information in a single scene – when Rushmore’s Max Fischer admonished an actor with the words “Every line counts!” he was mouthing Anderson’s mission statement, and The Royal Tenenbaums is packed with the same keenly observed interactions that made the earlier film such a gem. A wonderful scene where Etheline admits to her would-be suitor that she hasn’t been intimate with a man for decades is laced with the kind of bemused resignation everyone over the age of fifty has the right to call their own, while Margot and Richie’s moment of truth is a masterpiece of bittersweet restraint. The film rises on the strength of individual scenes, and there are so many unexpected delights that you can forgive Anderson and Wilson for failing to craft a coherent whole.

We shouldn’t forget that Anderson is also the director, and he’s up to his old tricks and then some. The film kicks off with an enjoyable montage of the Tenenbaum children’s achievements, and whenever the pace starts to flag he’s on hand with another attention-grabbing device to bring our attention back to centre stage (chapter headings, book covers, voiceover narration, and many others). He’s also one of the few directors outside of Scorsese who possesses a genuine affinity for using his soundtrack in an appropriate manner – he’s blessed with an uncanny ability to match the music to the mood (he even goes so far as to play the tracks on the set), pacing his scenes so the song structures mesh with the onscreen action like a well-oiled set of gears, and as usual he’s rounded up a rousing collection of old favourites and hidden treasures to tantalise our aural nerves.

With The Royal Tenenbaums Anderson has entrenched himself as one of the brightest young talents working the circuit today. It’s a film you can enjoy on multiple levels, featuring a first-rate cast and a budget that was used, not as an advertisement for flashy visuals, but to create a unique atmosphere of a world that is both instantly recognisable and a few inches sideways of our own. There’s someone in there whose life will speak to you like it was written in your soul, and while there’s no promises of a better tomorrow you’ll walk away with a newfound appreciation of our innate capacity for magnificent folly, understated nobility and conditional forgiveness.

Anderson doesn’t want us to give up on anybody, least of all ourselves, and this is the film that proves it. It might not sound like much as messages go, but there are times when it’s exactly what we need to hear.

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originally posted: 03/30/02 12:39:37
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User Comments

1/19/18 Ed Riddick Brilliant writing and acting. 5 stars
3/05/15 stanley welles an awesome adult comedy - immaculately written and brilliantly performed 5 stars
7/08/09 *Holy_J@lapeno* A wonderful dark humor movie. Favorite part "Look at that old grizzley bear" 4 stars
7/04/09 Gristle So fucking empty and utterly boring 1 stars
11/11/08 Brian I'm addicted to this movie. One of the best comedies ever. Hilarious and beautiful. 5 stars
9/03/07 Quigley Well-scripted, well-acted and visually inventive comedy. Hackman should have won an Oscar. 5 stars
2/06/07 nmedina Ive seen it over 100 times and have decide like Eli Cash to be a Tenenbaum. 5 stars
1/09/07 Drew Galletti Extremely well done, though I need to revisit still 3 stars
1/09/07 Tulip O'Hare Completely don't get why this is supposed to be good. I just found it slow and snarky. 2 stars
11/03/06 Bitchflaps I hated Rushmore, but this is excellent. 4 stars
10/12/06 The Hugh Hilarious and Tragic 5 stars
8/11/06 M. Mirliss According to EFC, my film criticism skills are worse than Kelly Palma's...suicide time. 5 stars
4/06/06 Wholy Crapman Wacky, yet believable and lovable characters. Just what Anderson does best 5 stars
3/19/06 MP Bartley Hackman is terrific, but Anderson (as ever) keeps us too distant from the characters. 4 stars
1/09/06 sdg sdg boring 1 stars
7/31/05 yuko hilarious, adorable and a little bit of sadness 5 stars
6/14/05 E-FUNK A Beautiful, hilarious, heart-felt film. I didn't think he could top Rushmore, I was wrong. 5 stars
6/08/05 John Aster Habig a movie that looks at the true meaning of family and love 5 stars
5/26/05 Jake Not as good as Rushmore but still very good 4 stars
5/13/05 mitch Kelly Palma can't handle "reel" comedy 5 stars
1/16/05 Abbath Nice, quirky comedy/drama. Well written with great characters. 5 stars
12/30/04 DM Funny, unique and strangely poignant. 4 stars
11/09/04 Chris McElheney the best movie ive ever seen! i love it. 5 stars
11/01/04 erika my name is erika tenenbaum which is preety fnny i thought the movie was just awsome 5 stars
9/12/04 R.W. Welch Has a certain style but mostly played too slow and low key. 3 stars
8/04/04 Stefan Good comedy thats very funny but gladly doesn't laugh at its self if u know what i mean 4 stars
7/30/04 Josh Standlee So sh*tty, it made Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Bill Murray look bad! 1 stars
7/12/04 Recurring Dream i was very entertained and amused by those great little touches in the background. 4 stars
7/05/04 Erin Great!!! 5 stars
7/02/04 Daveman Gracefully crafted and shot with wonderfully subtle dark humor. 4 stars
6/28/04 Bobby da Squid Wonderful cast, NYC-but-not-NYC, amazing rich, detailed visuals - one of my favs 5 stars
4/26/04 Lord Jiggy A slow build...earns your laughter, respect, and affection. Worth full price. 5 stars
3/27/04 Melissa Gaugert If you like Ben Stiller comedy, you'll love it, like I did! Wacky!! 4 stars
3/24/04 Margie i don't think i got it, cuz i was more creeped out than anything... and i didn't laugh :-( 2 stars
3/17/04 Holly Beeman What can I say? Wes Anderson is the man. Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, etc.! 5 stars
3/09/04 Wendranh didn't feel any connection to the characters at all 2 stars
2/26/04 Sean What comedy should aspire to be. One of the best. 5 stars
2/07/04 charlie ace 5 stars
1/30/04 Jack Bourbon Garp-guy wannabes. 3 stars
1/28/04 Tom Brilliant, a rare gem 5 stars
1/27/04 lonesome_whistle A funny, quirky, touching movie 4 stars
1/27/04 Jay This movie was a waste of money and time 1 stars
6/26/03 cochese No one else said it, so I will. "The Royal Piece of Shit" 1 stars
5/13/03 scottyrobotty more funny lines than any movie in the last 10 years. perfect 5 stars
4/21/03 Skankin' inThePit Great movie/acting/directing--Anderson is a favorite along with Richard Kelly in my book 5 stars
3/23/03 Winthrop J Applesmythe III the reviewer is on crack. SEE THIS MOVIE. 5 stars
2/11/03 Alex Pérez Córdova It´s an excelent movie 5 stars
1/06/03 Karen Great movie! 5 stars
12/16/02 Jimmy Snuka This movie is as awesome as me off the top rope!!! 5 stars
12/09/02 Goofy Maxwell Bitter fruit grows on this family tree. But magnificent Anderson tells such a sweet tale. 4 stars
12/03/02 mr. Pink brilliant! Anderson fulfills his promise that he had with debut Bottle Rocket. Great! 5 stars
12/02/02 Gruther waste of time 2 stars
11/28/02 Zack W. Young A pervesely terrific cast and brilliant writing and direction make this a rare modern gem. 5 stars
11/28/02 Lady who hates romantic comedies The Wilson brothers rock - Gwyneth does not 4 stars
11/04/02 Nerf_Herder Sad, funny, bitersweet and everything in between 5 stars
10/30/02 spacecowboy I really enjoyed this. 5 stars
10/28/02 mike bernotas One thing about this guy's movies.... you can almost feel the season's 5 stars
10/27/02 MarktheShark6 The best family movie ever made. They didn't have to kill poor ol' Buckley, though. 5 stars
9/29/02 royal tenenbaum sweet 5 stars
9/29/02 Peter Sherlock I think people mistake smart-arse stuff for brilliance 1 stars
9/15/02 Monster W. Kung Competently made and acted, but not very funny at all. 3 stars
8/25/02 Roberto Donati Is Anderson the new american talent? 4 stars
8/07/02 Banky Edwards What a weird and funny movie!!! I really enjoyed it and giggled like a fool throughout! 5 stars
8/05/02 Lexy Z. Bitchin.' 5 stars
8/01/02 Christopher Inspired, wonderful, touching, funny. 5 stars
7/27/02 karen goldstein i didn't laugh once - she was in love with her brother! Yuck!!!! 1 stars
7/23/02 erick prolly fav. of the year, and def. in my top 5, watch its awesome 5 stars
7/16/02 Caiphn Just watched it again, still my favorite movie this year. 5 stars
7/15/02 The Bomb 69 I caught myself laughing at the small, minute points, if you pay attention it will delight 4 stars
7/14/02 Phil M. Aficionado Quirky, funny, and cutting edge. A truly meaningful dark comedy with ACTING 4 stars
7/12/02 Punk_Ass At first I was like WTF?? but it grew on me as the movie progressed. wierd/entertaining 4 stars
6/19/02 Oscar Smart, Funny, and full of substance 5 stars
5/27/02 PeterGibbons Art house? You frat boys are a riot. I wanna do mescaline! 5 stars
5/27/02 Nicole If you like dry humor and pay attention to the detail in the movie, you will enjoy! 4 stars
5/19/02 Chowie pretty good, owen and luke kick arse 4 stars
5/15/02 nice, very nice, but not great. Huston is great 4 stars
3/27/02 dsmart American arthouse : odd, not funny, pointless 1 stars
3/23/02 Guy Forssman 0/100 there should be a law against this kind of movies 1 stars
3/19/02 Simeon Briggs Best film of the year 5 stars
3/18/02 Caiphn Worth watching. Excellent review, Collin Souter. 4 stars
3/14/02 Roy Smith Left after 20 minutes - boring and sad. People liked this? 1 stars
3/12/02 spaceworm Want to see it again. Gene's a Machine. 5 stars
3/02/02 Unagiboy The scene with the "Bikers" paintings was classic! 5 stars
3/01/02 Butterbean Hackman was incredible, this movie was entertaining. 4 stars
2/24/02 tforce academic films about neurosis are better than this 1 stars
2/20/02 Xaver Nicely entertaining. Some laughs, too. 4 stars
2/20/02 luda hoe the characters are brilliant, the script is smart, the laughs are genuine. 5 stars
2/19/02 Zach movie of the year, hands down. 5 stars
2/18/02 m i like it more each day that passes. i want to see it again, if only for the paintings. 4 stars
2/17/02 AgentDS Disturbingly entertaining 4 stars
2/17/02 Meryl K. Awesome. Stiller and Hackman are incredible. See the movie, see it right now. 5 stars
2/16/02 Phredrick Dobbs Exquisite 5 stars
2/11/02 Chelley Whom ever doesn't like this film doesn't deserve to live. 5 stars
2/11/02 Jimmy James excellent! quirky and funny 5 stars
2/11/02 Greg Jones By far the best movie of the year. 5 stars
2/06/02 Weeblerelf Intricate, beautiful!! My new favorite!! Just beautiful! 5 stars
2/02/02 dulac76 The guy who wrote this review must have seen an entirely different film than I did. 2 stars
1/28/02 arisa renewed my senses... 5 stars
1/27/02 Artist Freak This movie underwhelmed me immensely. SOme funny bits, but no point that I could see. 2 stars
1/25/02 Slitchard Richmond Insular and precious, but gloriously and sweetly so. Tender and melancholic. 5 stars
1/24/02 Paco Great emotional themes, performances and soundtrack. Far better than the overrated Rushmor 4 stars
1/22/02 The Man Best film since "American Beauty" 5 stars
1/18/02 Mister Char i just didn't see what was so terrific about it, maybe i missed something, good cast though 3 stars
1/15/02 Carly I had really high expectations. Solid, but no Rushmore. 4 stars
1/13/02 The Boy In The Designer Bubble Strange that nearly everyone in this movie has a famous relative? 1 stars
1/11/02 Robert Odd, touching, clever, but in the end, unsatisfying. Not much insight or feeling at the end 4 stars
1/08/02 wintermute Wow. 2002 is already heaps better than 2001. Bring it On! 5 stars
1/06/02 jeffrey flood wondreful wicked satire 5 stars
1/06/02 The Man Superb- great performances. A film with a style to call its own 5 stars
1/05/02 specialK no Rushmore, but had 4(?) alumni. didn't meet expectations 3 stars
1/05/02 raiven an unfunny waste of film, cast and TIME, trying SOOO hard to be eccentric and clever. 1 stars
1/05/02 rue the whirl i predict this will get better with repeated viewings 4 stars
1/04/02 John This isn't just a a movie. It's *film*. This is easily the funniest and best movie so far 5 stars
1/04/02 Superdave Excellent acting, somewhat funny, but no story and very strange, but in a bad way 3 stars
1/03/02 This movie's awsome! Y2k2 I loved this movie, actually I havn't seen it yet, but since Owen's in it, it must be good. 5 stars
1/02/02 jim-bob one hot asian masseuse in it, and one tit-shot. 3 stars
12/31/01 poetchuck An afternoon nap would have been a better use of time 1 stars
12/31/01 Thor-Leo Brilliant, perfectly pitched, almost every scene a jewel. 5 stars
12/30/01 LZ "Interesting..." 4 stars
12/29/01 Jason Fessel This movie rules. It is totally entertaining and funny. It is easy to get absorbed into ch 5 stars
12/23/01 frank i didn't think it was better than RUSHMORE, but it was close. 5 stars
12/19/01 Heather Full of dry humor and great characters, one of the year's best 5 stars
12/16/01 ajay rushmore was great, this is just as good. 5 stars
12/16/01 Emily great 5 stars
12/15/01 Boomshanka Better than Rushmore. 5 stars
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  14-Dec-2001 (R)



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