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Old Movie, New Review: The Royal Tenenbaums

December 13, 2009

I feel called to discuss The Royal Tenenbaums in response to a question posed by my dear friend and TBTS contributor Todd M.S. earlier this week. Paraphrasing, he said, “I love Rushmore, but I was bored to tears the one time I watched The Royal Tenenbaums. Tell me what’s good about it.”

I was taken aback by the challenge, as I had previously operated under the assumption that you either respond deeply to Wes Anderson or you don’t (and it’s no measure of “good taste” one way or the other). So, because I’ve known for a long time that Rushmore is one of Todd’s favorite movies, I figured he held similar positive regard for Tenenbaums as well.

I’m not here to tell Todd he’s wrong, but I welcome the opportunity to talk about why I love one of my favorite movies.

I’d argue that, with the advantage of several years of hindsight, it’s possible to see Anderson’s first three films—Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and Tenenbaums—as a loose trilogy of films that explore a cohesive and unified set of themes. Anderson’s thematic concerns center on his characters’ ambition, potential, and ability to achieve notable and/or worthwhile things, and the obstacles, rooted in childhood, that prevent the fulfillment of that potential and ability. And, of the three, I see Tenenbaums as the most insightful, fully realized meditation on those themes.

In Bottle Rocket, Owen Wilson’s Dignan is all ambition and no ability. He crafts 5-year and 25-year plans for his future success, and wants it badly, but in the here and now, he is naive, gullible, impatient, and simply not all that bright. It’s also implied that he was born into far less wealth and privilege than his best friend Anthony (played by Luke Wilson). Anthony has familial access to networks of power; Dignan does not. Of course, Anthony is crushingly bored with the playthings and empty pastimes of his family’s yacht club set, and he desires novel experiences and real human connection, which he finds through Dignan and later Inez, more than anything material. The film ends with a monumentally bad heist that sends Dignan to jail, but his optimism remains unshaken. If we could check in on them in their lives after the film’s end, I believe that Dignan’s ambition and confidence will take him a long way, but never as far as he would like, and Anthony will continue coasting and enjoying his inherited and largely unearned freedom to reject the pursuit of achievement.

Rushmore’s Max Fischer is rather like Dignan, Jr., but with a bit more natural ability and access to opportunity to develop his potential. Still, to the extent that 15-year-old Max gets by at Rushmore Academy (and he barely does), it’s mostly through his interpersonal charm. He is constantly reminded that, on an academic and especially a basic socioeconomic level, he does not fit in with his over-privileged classmates. He connects so immediately and deeply with Herman Blume because they share an inherent sense of “otherness” and separation from generational wealth, status, and power. Still, Max’s ability as a playwright (that little one-act about Watergate) got his foot in the door at Rushmore, and so, unlike Dignan, he has access to education and opportunity that will likely allow him to develop talents, pursue passions, and achieve some level of fulfillment.

And then there’s The Royal Tenenbaums. The three Tenenbaum children—Chas, Margot, and Richie—seemingly have it all: high levels of natural talent (they’re even touted as “geniuses”) and plenty of access to opportunities to develop what they were born with. And yet, when we catch up with the three children in early adulthood, each is profoundly unhappy, unfulfilled, and seemingly stuck in deeply dysfunctional situations brought on by both their own bad choices and a few unfortunate external circumstances. Some unlikely convergences lead all three, and their father Royal, back to the family home where the matriarch Etheline still resides.

The film gives us a torrent of direct, long-delayed confrontations with deep troubles and persistent demons, ones in which the Tenenbaum children (and they are still children in the emotional sense, as we can see in nearly all their interactions with their parents) finally begin to live as something other than “child geniuses” with ever-growing lists of disappointments and failures. Chas finally confronts his wife’s death and his anger toward his father. Margot finally confronts her poorly understood sense of rootlessness and “otherness” born from being the only adopted Tenenbaum. Richie finally confronts his overwhelming love for his adopted sister Margot that had ultimately driven him to career derailment, futile escape attempts across the globe, and suicidal despair.

The ending of The Royal Tenenbaums is remarkable. Margot writes what appears to be a mediocre-at-best autobiographical play (which receives mixed reviews). Richie begins teaching tennis classes at the 375th Street YMCA. Chas is the only person with his father when he dies of a heart attack. And yet, each of these small and ostensibly sad outcomes is in fact a rather magnificent triumph, because each represents a victory over the utterly crippling malaise that each character began the film with. For the first time ever, each is living under a rubric other than “failed genius.”

This theme is perfectly illustrated in what has become, during the course of reflecting on how to respond to Tony’s question, my new favorite moment in the film. When Royal’s cancer ruse is exposed to the whole clan, he tries to pretend to Richie that he had somehow “beaten” the cancer. Of course, Richie knows better, and he says, “But Dad, you were never dying.” Royal replies, “But I’m going to live.”

That’s the simple, beautiful lesson that each Tenenbaum learns in the journeys we see in the film. They may have felt like it for years, but they were never dying. And now, they’re going to live. Their achievements are small, and will remain so, and there’s still much work to be done. And that’s what makes each Tenenbaum’s redemption so pure and true.

Postscript: There should be a part 2 to this defense of The Royal Tenenbaums, because I haven’t even mentioned the greatness of several individual performances, the stunningly good use of music, the striking animal imagery, or Wes Anderson’s meticulous attention to visual detail and internal consistency.

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5 Comments
  1. December 13, 2009 9:46 pm

    Hear, hear.

    Tenenbaums is one of my favorites as well. As much as I love each of Anderson’s films for different (yet strangely the same) reasons, Tenenbaums to me is almost like a perfect Christmas movie, which is why it’s fitting that you’ve reviewed it now. It’s all about disfunction and family, setting selves apart and pulling selves together. While I was never bowled over by Darjeeling (I’ve tried to be, believe me, about four or five times, but have never experience the same visceral reaction as I have to other Anderson films), Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and Tenenbaums remain to me a very holy trinity of films — with a fantastic valentine postscript of the bizarre and mischievous Life Aquatic, which is also sheer joy of its own strange, everything-but-the-kitchen sink variety.

    Long story short — I agree. And I applaud you pointing these things out to a disbeliever. Knowing Tony, I think he might see new things in it on second viewing, and strongly encourage it. To me, it is one of the great films about family, and about how we’re all strange and weird and individual yet bloodlines hold us together. In fact, I think I’ll put it in right now.

  2. Tony Mendocino permalink
    December 13, 2009 11:45 pm

    Alright, you Tenenbaumers (no relation to the Unabaumers) – it is ON. The missus (who confessed a similar disinterest in the first viewing) are set to look at TRT one more time. I love this challenge, because I’ve been wrong on many of my first impulses (Eddie Izzard, Flaming Lips, C-SPAN, Dan LeBatard, etc). Far too often, it takes a second look for a real evaluation. We shall see…

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