In a quotation found in the extra features of the Criterion Collection DVD for The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson says that for his first two films Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, he outlined his ideas for the set, props, and costumes, but mostly discarded them in order to allow the various designers and department heads to have control. For The Royal Tenenbaums his ideas were too specific and important to go by the wayside, so he had his brother Eric Chase Anderson sketch out the characters and sets during pre-production to distribute to the various departments all at once.
This direct involvement is partially why The Royal Tenenbaums may feature the richest mise-en-scene of any Anderson film. Every piece of clothing, every hanging portrait, and every character position has significance, even if it is nothing other than to be silly. In Rushmore we see rational characters like Mrs. Cross or Max’s father Bert, but in The Royal Tenenbaums, we get the sense that all of the characters together exist in a world that is all their own. It genuinely feels like the sketches of Eric Chase Anderson are come to life, with each of the characters getting fully fleshed out while still maintaining a certain cartoonish sensibility.
Tenenbaums opens with a montage celebrating the success of a family of genius children before inevitably focusing on their failures for the rest of the narrative. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) abandoned his children at a young age, leaving them to the care of their ambitious mother Etheline (Anjelica Huston). The Tenenbaum children consist of talented business child turned overprotective widower Chas (Ben Stiller), adopted daughter and former playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and tennis prodigy who lost his game Richie (Luke Wilson).
The three children are brought back together when their vacant father returns to their lives and announces he has six weeks to live and wants to use his last days making up for lost time. The family finds themselves all together back in their mansion on Archer Avenue with the addition of family personal attendant, Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), and the accountant who has become a suitor for Etheline. Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). Each of the adult children (an apt oxymoron in this case) reacts differently to the presence of their father and throughout the rest of the film, mostly through subtext or stylized flashbacks, we learn why.
Like a cartoon, the characters in The Royal Tenenbaums never change clothes and maintain the same look, even in flashbacks. We see that each of the children wears an outfit that reflects the time in their life when they were at their peak and the clothes serve as a daily reminder of their unfulfilled potential. Anderson often portrays the moneyed class in a spiraling downfall as if that psychological underdevelopment is their penance for being rich.
In Tenenbaums, Anderson explores the consequences of broken familial relationships with each of the children unable to express love both within the family and externally. This is most notable in the relationship between Richie and Margot, with the former being in love with the latter since childhood. Despite receiving an unexpected blessing from his father, Richie feels unable to pursue his adopted sister because of societal pressure. Instead he is forced to internalize his angst, creating one of the most subtextually developed characters in the film.
Luke Wilson is more than up to the challenge of creating Richie, in what may be the strongest on screen performance of his career. He proves to have a rich understanding for Anderson’s unique style of dialogue and expresses so much by saying and doing so little. The rest of the cast is equally superb with a few exceptions. Gene Hackman was perfectly cast as the family’s manipulative and eccentric patriarch. He perfectly dances the line between the genuinely caring, deeply regretful father and the aged prankster who is just messing with everyone’s head. Anjelica Huston is also perfect as the somewhat frigid mother who is going through latent development much like her children.
Ben Stiller isn’t given as significant of an arc as his screen siblings, but he does a marvelous job at giving the film much of its humor along with Owen Wilson, who plays family friend Eli Cash. Anderson regular Bill Murray is delightful in a role that is not much more than a cameo. The only actor who did not quite feel up to the challenge was Gwyneth Paltrow, who always felt more like she was acting for Anderson than genuinely inhabiting a persona. It might have been that her delivery was too dry, failing to embrace the necessary quirkiness that is requisite for any Anderson character.
The embrace of the absurdity may never be better realized in any of Anderson’s films, than it is in a fantastic climactic car accident scene. After Eli crashes his car into the family mansion, the entire family comes outside to view the wreckage and comfort one another. Chaos is brought to the false order of 111 Archer Avenue and in a moment where several members of the family were nearly lost, they find themselves closer than ever. The connectedness is wonderfully demonstrated in a long panning shot that gives us glimpses of several onscreen relationships. The cartoonish quality of the movie becomes suddenly very real, while never losing that silly quality that Anderson does so well.