The Royal Tenenbaums

The Royal Tenenbaums is one my favourite movies and I have watched it a whopping total of four times. I’ve been delaying in writing this review for quite a while, precisely because I like the movie so much. I want to be able to do it justice and to give a compelling recommendation so that a reader or two just might be tempted to go out and see it themselves.

Then again, it is, in thinking about it now, a movie that almost eludes description, because it is so very unique. If you do go out and see the movie, perhaps you will at first have the feeling that it is unlike anything you have ever seen before. It’s possible that such a claim is a bit of an exaggeration, but it is certainly true that The Royal Tenenbaums is unconventional. This unconventional nature, however, is at the heart of its charm. This is a movie that isn’t afraid to be what it is.

Your first thought upon seeing the title might be, what in the world is a Tenenbaum? Let’s get one thing clear right away: the title is not a typo referring to a Tannenbaum and the German tree lover’s favourite Christmas carol. Tenenbaum is the last name of a family, the family around which the story is based. And Royal, the first part of the title, is the first name of patriarch of the Tenenbaum family.

What is the movie about? As the title so helpfully suggests, it’s about the Tenenbaum family! Certainly Royal Tenenbaum is the protagonist, as he seeks reconciliation (under false pretences) with the rest of the clan, from whom he has been estranged for a number of years. Yet the movie begins with a flashback to the childhood of the three Tenenbaum children, played by Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson (and let us not forget Owen Wilson, with his characteristic drawl, as their neighbour and friend). Each child (excluding Owen this time, with apologies) is a prodigy in a different area. However, the trajectory of the children as they become adults and of the family in general is one of failure and disappointment.

It is a wholeheartedly dysfunctional family, and when it comes to dysfunctional families, no one is better at portraying them with insight and with love than director Wes Anderson. Anderson has a number of other excellent films which you might have heard of (The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom, more recently). Some of these films might appear soon in reviews on this very website (if you couldn’t tell, I am a devoted Wes Anderson fan). His style as a director is very distinctive, and once you’ve seen one or two of his films, you’ll know what I mean. In a Wes Anderson film, every shot is meticulously detailed and arranged. His films feature peculiar people and might be adequately described as “quirky,” but they never alienate the viewer from the characters, but rather bring the viewer into the rich, stylized world of the movie.

The soundtrack of the film is another thing about it to love, opening as it does with “Hey Jude” blaring while the narrator (Alec Baldwin) introduces the story, which is framed as though it comes from the pages of a book.

Ultimately this film succeeds because it is able to blend humour and emotion so deftly. The movie is eminently quotable and I am restraining myself right now in order not to include a list of my favourites (which would sound rather absurd without knowing the full context of the movie). Yet despite this humour, or maybe because of this humour, the film is also moving, touching us in the way it speaks about love, loss, family and belonging. Writing about it now makes me want to watch it for a fifth time, but maybe I’ll hold myself back for a bit. The Royal Tenenbaums, in my mind, is everything a film should be. It doesn’t tell us what to think or hit us over the head with thrills or shock value to fulfill some standard movie-going expectation. Instead it intertwines wit with sadness, joy with suffering, embracing its characters in all their defects and failings, and allowing us to do so too.