The Royal Tenenbaums is a very neat and orderly film about damaged people. It’s similar to Rushmore in that way, but it’s also much more… comical? It’s certainly something. It’s Wes Anderson, that’s what it is.
The film is broken up into chapters, and in each chapter title card, we see the first few sentences of the “novel,” describing what’s about to happen in that scene. This also gives the story a foreboding sense, like it’s headed towards a collision, and it’s all preordained. That “collision,” though, isn’t something like two opposing sides about to clash. Instead it’s each character about to drive their car into a brick wall separately and simultaneously. Oddly enough, there is a collision at the end of the film, but we’ll get there.
The story follows the Tenenbaum family. The head of the family is Royal (Gene Hackman), and when the main story begins (after a prologue in which we get a summary of the kids’ childhoods), Royal is living out of a hotel, having not spoken to his family in years.
Royal gets kicked out of his hotel, so he tries to force himself back into his family’s life, really just because he needs a place to crash. Lying to them about having terminal stomach cancer, Royal is allowed to sleep in his own room on the top floor of the Tenenbaum’s magically large apartment. The outside of this apartment looks like any of the other buildings it’s sandwiched in between, but inside it is colorful and vibrant and houses all kinds of people and events, like each room is a different part of Willy Wonka’s factory.
Royal’s wife, Ethel (Angelica Huston) begrudgingly allows him to stay with them even while she is being courted by Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), the family’s longtime accountant.
Royal and Ethel have three adult children. There is Richie (Luke Wilson), a disgraced former tennis pro who hides behind sunglasses, long hair and his trademark athletic headband. He even still wears his uniform, in other words he still bears his shame.
Richie threw his final tennis match (which his father gambled on) because he was so distraught over his adopted sister’s marriage the day before. See, Richie is in love with his sister Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), but he has never told her.
Margot is married to an older man, Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), but she’s miserable. She hides in the bathroom for hours on end, watching television. She moves back home when she hears that her and Richie’s other brother Chas (Ben Stiller) has moved home as well.
Chas and his two twin sons (all dressed in identical red jumpsuits) move to the Tenenbaum large apartment because Chas is frightened that their home isn’t safe in the event of a fire. He has been on edge ever since his wife died in a plane crash the year before which he and his boys survived.
When Royal announces that he is dying, Richie (having been out at sea for months) decides to return home. Finally the entire family is together.
The problem, however, is that no one is happy. Chas argues the most with Royal, feeling abandoned from his youth. And he’s right to be mad. Royal is a bad father. He disregards everyone’s feelings, and he seems to constantly forget that Chas’ wife has passed away. Royal even forgets what Margot’s middle name is, even though it’s the same as Royal’s mother’s name.
Margot has been sleeping around on Raleigh, with Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), a drug-addicted cowboy hat-wearing man who looks like he could be her brother. Eli is also Richie’s best friend, or he was. Richie writes a letter early on to Eli, telling him he’s in love with Margot. Eli tells Margot, and Margot tells Richie she knows. It’s a bit stiff and uncomfortable to watch.
Raleigh tells Richie that he thinks Margot is cheating on him, and Richie is so angry that he punches his fist through a window. Together they hire a private detective to follow Margot around. When the detective tells them about all of her romantic flings (in an amusing montage), Richie goes home and attempts suicide.
His near-death brings everyone back together, similar to Royal’s lie about being near death. By this point Royal has already been caught on his lie and kicked out. He attempts to rebuild his life as well as his relationship with the family, this time through more honest means. He gets a job as an elevator operator and grants Ethel a divorce, which she had been seeking. In doing so, Royal grants her permission to marry Henry, and he stops being so selfish, probably driven in part by his son’s suicide attempt opening his eyes that things are not okay.
At the wedding, held at the Tenenbaum’s apartment, Eli crashes his car into the side of the home. Eli is high on mescaline, and Royal has to pull Chas’ kids out of the way, saving them. This unites the family, aided by the fact that Eli makes himself the enemy, at least temporarily.
I should also mention that after Richie’s suicide attempt, he and Margot agree to be secret lovers, and even Royal says they should go for it.
The movie ends with everyone in a pretty good place. Royal is back in his family’s lives because for the first time he can spend time with them without taking anything from them. In the end he dies, and Chas is there beside him in the ambulance. Royal smiles right before he dies.
The family attends his funeral, and the movie ends.
Each character is like a cartoon, visually. They all have their wardrobe and clearly-defining characteristics. Like how Homer Simpson always has the same shirt and blue pants, Chas always wears the same red jumpsuit and Richie always wears his uniform and headband, until he doesn’t.
In a way it’s these characters breaking out of their boxes. The neat and symmetrical framing of this film contributes to the idea that these characters have been put in a corner or made to act and be a certain way. Their misery suggests they want to break free from those restrictions that were implemented into them at a young age by a domineering father. That father then leaves, and they’re still stuck in their neatly framed prisons.
So in another way of looking at it, this film is like taking cartoon characters and bringing them to life. They’re much more multi-faceted than the movie poster might initially suggest.
If you didn’t know this was a Wes Anderson film (and thus layered and complex), you might look at each character and think you can define them based on appearance alone. Bill Murray clearly plays an intellectual, Royal is clearly happy and Ben Stiller is clearly overly-protective of his children.
They don’t exist as one, I guess is another way of saying it. They’re all in their own boxes, and they just happen to be near each other. But by the end of the film they have melted together until they’re all at the funeral, dressed alike.
This film also seems to show human misery as kind of amusing. Each character’s struggle is real and painful and emotional, yet from the way it’s filmed and the story is told (montages, title cards, music) it’s like Wes Anderson is undercutting it, suggesting that each character’s personal pain is something to laugh at rather than to empathize with.
But that’s also not what Anderson wants you to do. I think he’s placing personal struggle inside of a larger, more palatable production to show that we all go through this or something like it. Our pain and affection may not be as severe or heightened as some of these characters, but it exists nonetheless. We put people in boxes all the time, whether it’s stereotyping or just making assumptions of people based on knowing one or two things about them. So the way these characters are boxed-in is the same way we box other people in and are probably boxed-in ourselves.
I’m not sure how to structure the rest of what I had to say, but I’ll elaborate on some notes I made while watching the film:
Royal tries to make Chas’ kids more reckless (shot of them go karting that’s an homage to The French Connection, another Gene Hackman movie. Royal bonds with Chas’ kids in the same way he used to bond with his own kids, namely Richie. So he’s not improving anything, he’s just repeating certain behavior. He’s like the guy who shows up at a party and gets everyone all riled up, then leaves before the riot he inevitably incites.
All the kids are sad or have some sense of delayed adolescence.
The neat and symmetrical farming helps add to the idea that each character is stuck in a box from which they’re desperate to escape = it’s a bit odd at first, seeing the neat, colorful framing with the severely damaged characters.
There’s a symbol of Chas’ mice who are out of their cage and wandering around the house. Royal wants to put them in their cage, counter to his wanting to help Chas’ kids become reckless. Basically, Royal is trying to put the mice back in their cage while at the same time trying to break his grandchildren out of their cage. The mice have spots, like dalmatians, and in the end Royal gets a dalmatian for Chas and his kids, to replace their dog who was killed in the collision caused by Eli’s car.
Royal’s hospital gown is pink silk… just kind of funny and makes it more apparent that he’s lying about really being hospitalized.
“Immediately after making this statement, Royal realized that it was true” the narrator says after Royal states that “these past 6 days have been the best 6 days of my life.” It’s both funny and sad, and between this and Rushmore, Wes Anderson has demonstrated an ability to master these types of moments that are often reliant on one person’s multi-dimensional expression.
What Royal really wanted was to stick to the “status quo” = he really wants to keep people in their box. When he returns home, he seems to treat everyone like they’ve been frozen in time and are the same people they were years earlier, which, they kind of are.
Royal’s friend, Pagoda, once tried to kill him and stabs him again later after Royal gets them kicked out of the house. So Pagoda has hurt him multiple times yet Royal keeps him around, like it’s nothing. It seems to add to the idea that these characters feel great pain yet it’s presented as if in a cartoon where there are no real consequences. Maybe Richie’s suicide attempt is supposed to undermine this and show that there really are severe consequences to their unhappiness. Or maybe it’s just that Royal doesn’t seem to take anything seriously, and the entire worldview of the film is presented through his eyes. No other character in this film would see the world with as much color as we as the audience see it. Instead it would be bleak, perhaps in black and white. The vibrant color and quirky camera movements and placement reflect more of Royal’s perspective. The film also has his name in the title, like these aren’t all individual people so much as extensions of Royal. They are all defined by him, so they are forced to live in the colorful, quirky world he imagines even though it’s not the one they’d choose if they could.
Another image of pain in the film is that Ethel decides she likes Henry after he falls into a hole in the ground and Margot kisses Richie after his suicide attempt. Both women express intimacy with a man immediately after he hurts himself. Maybe they’re attracted to damaged men or maybe Wes Anderson wants to show that around every dark corner there could be a ray of sunshine (good follows bad so keep your head up).
Eli says he always wanted to be a Tenenbaum, and through his drug addiction and (we learn) hollow interior, he kind of is a Tenenbaum. His character at least fits in thematically, and he looks like Margot, more than her adopted brothers.
The new dalmatian Royal give to Chas is named Spark Plug and the dog helps Chas come back to life. By the end of the film everyone comes back to life and begins to define themselves on their own, not through their father. It’s so that when Royal passes away, they know enough to be their own people rather than extensions of him, and to discover this, they have to face him and oppose him (Chas in particular).