The Royal Tenenbaums

Before I say anything else, understand that my mind is busily chewing over a fact that makes me very uncomfortable, namely, the near-uniform whiteness of Wes Anderson’s movies. I love Wes Anderson. I love his movies. But I do not love monochromatic casting. But in thinking on this quite a bit in the past few months, I’ve come to realize that it’s not that he doesn’t hire people of colour, it’s that he doesn’t hire African Americans, rather specifically. In fact, The Royal Tenenbaums may be the only time he’s every hired a black actor for a role of substance (Courtney B. Vance got to narrate Isle of Dogs), and it’s really only to service a racist character, ie, Danny Glover’s only there so that Gene Hackman can call him a long list of slurs. And though Wes Anderson’s worlds are so often populated by the same faces, Glover’s has never reappeared. Hiring someone just to be a target seems particularly cruel. However, Kumar Pallana, an Indian actor, had appeared in 4 of Anderson’s films (he died in 2013 – and was originally a barista in Anderson’s favourite Dallas coffee shop). Waris Ahluwalia, an Indian-born, American Sikh, has been in three. Tony Revolori, the terrific breakout bellboy from The Grand Budapest Hotel, is of Guatemalan descent, though so far he’s appeared in more Spider-man movies than he has in the Wes Anderson universe. There was a smattering of Japanese voice actors in Isle of Dogs, though surprisingly and relatively few considering the whole film takes place in Japan. This isn’t exactly an exhaustive list, but it’s as close as it is short, and between you and I, the minute you start putting together a list of non-white actors, you’ve already lost. That’s 9 terrific, talky, thinky, inventive pieces of cinema with incredible ensemble casts and insane attention to detail and just 1 solitary black man, necessary to the script to be the recipient of a grumpy old man’s careless racist remarks. It’s a terrible tally.

And it’s too bad that Anderson’s movies have this problem because otherwise they’d be 100% my jam.

The Tenenbaums are a fascinatingly dysfuntional family. Matriarch Etheline (Anjelica Huston) raised her 3 children to be exceptional after her lousy husband Royal (Gene Hackman) left. Chas Tenenbaum was a prodigy investor, successfully running businesses out of his childhood bedroom. Now he’s a recent widower and fresh trauma has him raising his own sons in a constant state of terror. Margot Tenenbaum was a prodigy playwright, earning prizes and praise as a child for her mature writing. Today she’s literally soaking in depression as her husband Raleigh (Bill Murray) knocks helplessly on the bathroom door. Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) was a tennis prodigy hopelessly in love with his sister, Margot. He had a career-ending meltdown when Margot married Raleigh, and he’s spent the time since sailing the world, keeping oceans between himself and his family. Eli (Owen Wilson) is the boy next door who grew up gazing upon the relative privilege of the Tenenbaum family, wishing to belong to them. And of course Henry Sherman (Glover) is Etheline’s new suitor and the family’s disruptor.

Broke, homeless, with hackles raised about the new man prowling about, Royal Tenenbaum decides to home after decades away. They won’t have him of course. He spent years disappointing his family before being completely estranged from them. So his only move is to fake cancer as a ploy to gain sympathy – and even that’s a tough sell. But it gets him back in the family home, and one by one the grown children all return to orbit around him. They’re all fucked up in their own ways, but they’ve also got an extremely fucked up dynamic together. They’re a bunch of fire starters just waiting for a match, and Royal is a goddamned flame thrower. Whoosh.

It’s a movie full of quirks that still manages to be cohesive and sell a cogent story about a family full of tragedies. Betrayal lurks in every closet, disaster through every doorway. And even though it contains perhaps Anderson’s bleakest scene ever (set to Elliott Smith’s Needle in the Hay), it’s not all doom and gloom. There are plenty of laughs, but also some actual heartfelt moments. The movie is an act of forgiveness, a representation of forgiveness being a gift you give yourself, to set yourself free from the past and the pain it causes you. Royal may be irredeemable but his family is not. They’re deeply flawed and chronically eccentric, but the script searches authenticity and finds it in abundance.

Fun Facts:

Though the role of Royal was written with Hackman in mind, it was offered to Gene Wilder, who turned it down.

Danny Glover’s look in the film was modeled after U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, which is possibly my favourite sentence in the world.

There is no such thing as Dalmatian mice; the spots were drawn on with Sharpies.

Anjelica Huston wears Wes Anderson’s mother’s glasses in the film.

The hand that is seen with the BB lodged between its knuckles is not Ben Stiller’s, it’s Andrew Wilson’s (yes, brother to Luke and Owen). It’s no trick, he really has a BB stuck in there and has since childhood. Can you guess which one of his brothers shot him?

I turned to Sean at one point to say that there were a lot of Beatles songs in the film. In fact, Ruby Tuesday was playing at the moment, which is by the Stones, as I’m sure you’re aware, and as I myself am normally aware, though my brain was clearly existing in some alternate reality at the time. There is a Beatles song, and a John Lennon one, and four from the Stones. Brain fart.

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15 thoughts on “The Royal Tenenbaums

    1. Jay Post author

      Interesting. I mean, he’s very niche. Extremely. His writing is a certain way, his direction is a certain way, his set dec is a certain way. It’s very prescribed and if it isn’t your thing, there’s not a lot of leeway.

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  1. tarmac492

    Maybe the best looking film I can remember. Your recall of Eli Cash in your Once Upon a Time.. review was splendid. I understand your issues with Wes’ casting. In this particular film, could one argue that Henry Sherman has the best qualities out of all of them? A solid citizen who is trying to rise above the tragedy of his wife dying. I sensed a jealousy from Royal from the first time he saw Henry that went behind him marrying his ex wife. And Royal admitting to SHerman that he was wrong about him was one of the more emotional moments in the film for me. Great review, as always.

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    1. Jay Post author

      I definitely agree that Sherman is easily the best.
      At the end of the movie, when everyone is getting ready for the wedding, Sherman reminds Ben Stiller’s character that he, too, is a widower. Chas has been too wrapped up in his own shit to realize they have this in common. Sherman is quiet about his own issues – the only time he brings anything up is out of concern for the Tenenbaum family. I think all the characters are pretty self-involved, which makes for interesting and complicated dynamics.

      And very good point about Royal’s reaction to him. The two are suspicious of each other, but I think even Royal has to admit when he’s been defeated.

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  2. Chris

    I hated this film the first time I saw it but I really need to check it out again. I thought it was a huge letdown from the exquisite Rushmore — trying too hard, cloying, cutesy, overcooked. He seemed to be trying to push me away. Anyway, your review makes me want to give it another shot.

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  3. observationblogger

    I love this film and Wes Anderson. It requires multiple viewings at least it did for me to appreciate it’s quirky humour and unique characters. The music is great too, trippy like the film even including Dylan’s whimsical ‘WIGWAM’ .

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    1. Jay Post author

      Yes the music is always so carefully curated, I love in this movie seeing old 45s spinning on children’s record players from the period.

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  4. Paul. Writer and Filmmaker

    Great review. I’m not always a fan of Wes Anderson’s film on first watch but they get into the brain and skin on subsequent views. Also, as a white middle-class filmmaker perhaps he is casting based on “what and who he knows” rather than exclusion; it’s open to interpretation. Having said that Seu Jorge, the Brazilian musician had a prominent role in The Life Aquatic. . .

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  5. selizabryangmailcom

    My favorite scene, if I’m recalling correctly, was when Gwyneth Paltrow’s character accidentally chops her finger off and her only reaction is for her cigarette to fall out of her mouth.

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    1. Jay Post author

      Haha, yes! And her whole biological family is watching and they hardly react either.
      And then she goes home and keeps how she lost it a secret – and the smoking too.

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  6. mumubechy

    I actually held off watching Anderson films because I felt like it was something that rich kids at school liked to watch and tell people that they’ve watched it so they would sound hip and cool. And, I intentionally avoided The Royal Tenenbaums because of Gwyneth Paltrow. I never liked that lady. She didn’t deserve that Oscar for Shakespeare In Love, over Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth. I cannot. LOL, I sound like a hater. I did enjoy Darjeeling Limited and The Grand Budapest Hotel, especially the latter.

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    1. Jay Post author

      Yeah, I’ve never been a Gwyneth fan either. And luckily she hasn’t been asked back, though I guess she’s pretty tied up by all the Avengers movies she doesn’t know she’s in.

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