As I continue my top-5 rundowns here at O&T, I move on to #4 on my favourite-movie list, Wes Anderson’s 2004 masterpiece The Royal Tenenbaums. Yesterday we also had a comedy in High Fidelity, but this movie ranks as my favourite comedy movie of all time.
But the irony of it is, it would be easy not to class The Royal Tenenbaums as a comedy at all. Its cast may contain many famous Frat Pack faces – the Wilson Brothers and Ben Stiller are all major players – but it also is chock full of ‘serious’ talent like Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow and Danny Glover. Although based on the movie, you would be hard pressed to tell who is more used to comedy acting and who to drama.
The Royal Tenenbaums is unquestionably an ensemble piece – the plot centres around the titular Tenenbaum family who have splintered since the divorce of pater familias Royal (Hackman) and paleantologist mother Etheline (Huston). All the family are extremely intelligent and capable, we are told by Alec Baldwin’s brilliant voiceover.
Eldest son Chas (Stiller) was trading stock out of his bedroom in his early teens, but since the death of wife Rachel has become increasingly concerned with safety and has gone a bit off the rails to protect his kids Ari and Uzi (their names are not explained, unfortunately). Adopted daughter Margot (Paltrow) is a gifted author who won the Pulitzer but has shacked up with famous psychologist Raleigh St. Clair (a show-stealing Bil Murray at his very best) and become recluse, and son Richie (Luke Wilson) was once a famous tennis player who had an even famous-er meltdown, the subject of which has some of the movie’s best lines:
“Tennis Announcer 1: That’s 72 unforced errors for Richie Tenebaum. He’s playing the worst tennis of his life. What’s he feeling right now?
Tennis Announcer 2: I don’t know, Jim. There’s obviously something wrong with him. He’s taken off his shoes and one of his socks and… actually, I think he’s crying.”
It’s a staggering collection of talent, especially adding in Owen Wilson (who co-wrote the script)’s Eli Cash and Danny Glover’s Henry Sherman, and they all handle the comedy and drama with equal dexterity. The entire cast is nearly flawless and perfect for their parts, Anderson really has outdone himself in terms of amassing quality and then using it to its full potential.
The script is bursting with fantastic dialogue, the plot itself centred around Royal returning to his estranged family to announce his imminent death from stomach cancer. He is trying to re-assemble the now-defunct family unit, and is willing to do nearly anything to achieve this. Hackman is wonderful as the amoral and roguish Royal, creating fizzing chemistry with Huston’s Etheline and sparring with Danny Glover’s suitor Henry Sherman to try and win back her affection (“You wanna talk some jive? I’ll talk some jive like you never heard!”). However, it’s nearly impossible to find a star due to the embarrassment of acting riches this movie boasts – every character is equally important and all receive full exploration in the staggeringly good script.
Anderson’s direction is also tremendous, as he uses small touches to enhance the emotion of seemingly minute scenes – the slow-motion as the adult Margot is seen for the first time, the tracking shot of Richie’s pet hawk Mordecai as it returns to the house. The use of the house itself – a huge New York brownstone – by Anderson is wonderful; it boasts huge intellectual materials but these are scattered around the house. The Archer Avenue home of the Tenenbaums is as brilliant, disorganized and eclectic as the family itself, and Anderson’s creation of an utterly believeable family home inhabited by unbelieveable characters offers a superb backdrop for the movie’s events.
The soundtrack, much like High Fidelity’s, also plays a vital role as Anderson uses well-known hits like Ruby Tuesday (The Rolling Stones), These Days (Nico) and Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard (Paul Simon) to sometimes devastating effect. Anderson is perhaps second only to Cameron Crowe (whose brilliant Almost Famous narrowly missed out on this top 5) in terms of music selection, and his choices here are as inspired and clever as his subjects.
The combination of an utterly incomparable cast, a superb screenplay and some wonderful artistic and directorial touches makes The Royal Tenenbaums a beguiling movie. As someone who has watched it probably 20 times, I can honestly say that each viewing rewards you – there’s always a small detail that you hadn’t noticed or a nuance in a performance which just adds to your enjoyment of a true modern classic. There are many quality movies which have had similar ideas to Tenenbaums (the excellent The Squid and the Whale springs to mind), but there is still no better example of modern comedy-drama than Anderson’s pièce de résistance.
Eli Cash: I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum.
Royal Tenenbaum: Me too, me too.