Rather than offer a new take on the film, I thought it would be more interesting — maybe even useful for the uninitiated — to revisit my original review (albeit, broken down into paragraphs, which we weren’t doing in 2001). What I find most interesting about this initial look at Wes Anderson — apart from the idiotically low four star rating (hey, we all make mistakes) — is how little I reference the filmmaker. Of course, I had no point of reference at the time — no idea how The Royal Tenenbaums fit into his body of work. I certainly had no clue whether or not it was just a momentary oddity or a piece of a larger singular vision of a burgeoning stylist. Of course, I now know that the latter is true. I didn’t then. And I obviously had no idea where that vision would go. Below is the original review.
The Royal Tenenbaums is one of the damndest pictures to come out of Hollywood in recent times. Yes, it’s a star-laden comedy, but it’s a peculiar one by just about any standards. It’s very rarely laugh-out-loud funny, some of the humor is quite grim, and it’s ultimately and obviously fairly serious in its intention. Personally, I liked it. I’m not sure I could resist a film that includes the line, “That’s the last time you’ll stick a knife in me,” even if the film wasn’t very good. Happily, The Royal Tenenbaums is at least good and maybe even very good, even if it just misses that little something that pushes a movie over the edge into greatness.
Writer-director Wes Anderson — along with co-writer Owen Wilson — has devised a very clever fairy tale here. In fact, the story of Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman, who here makes up for his “just give me the paycheck” performance in Behind Enemy Lines) and the Tenenbaum family and extended family is presented as if it is from a children’s book, read to us by narrator Alec Baldwin. The setting is a Never Never Land version of New York City — presenting the city almost as a child might see it. It’s a place of size and wonder, with sketchy notions of geography, hotels that would seem far more at home in the 1950s, and where the streets are cruised by literal Gypsy Cabs (as if a child might assume the term to be the name of a taxi company).
The characters are all eccentric and/or dysfunctional, which befits both the setting and the persona of Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum — a charmingly corrupt and basically amoral estranged patriarch who manages to move himself back in with the family when his money runs out and he’s evicted from the hotel he’s been living in for the past 20-odd years. How does he manage this? He has elevator operator Dusty (Seymour Cassell) pose as a doctor, claims he’s dying of stomach cancer and works a sympathy bid on his estranged wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston), even though she’s finally divorcing him to marry her accountant, Henry (Danny Glover). This, however, is the tip of the iceberg as concerns Etheline’s troubles, since the entirety of her dysfunctional brood move back in with her for one reason or another: financial genius Chas (Ben Stiller) and his two boys, washed-up tennis star Richie (Luke Wilson), and depressive and detached adopted daughter Margot (an almost unrecognizable Gwyneth Paltrow).
The bulk of the story –amidst innumerable cons and schemes — concerns the interaction (as well as non-interaction) of this misbegotten household. And this doesn’t take into account Margot’s estranged husband, psychologist-author Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), who is actually more interested in studying and experimenting on his latest patient-discovery than anything else; Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), the drug addicted neighbor who writes popular but critically damned western novels; or even the bizarre manservant Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), who once saved Royal’s life … after stabbing him in the first place.
A stranger assortment of humanity would be hard to imagine. Yet Anderson manages to make them all real and strangely likable, even though he never allows anyone to make a traditional bid for our sympathy — or even each other’s. It’s a neat trick and Anderson manages to pull it off. The characters become sympathetic by virtue of their cockeyed reality and the utter sadness that lurks just behind every gag. The level of non-communication in this group is astounding, perhaps reaching its apex when Eli decides to tell Margot that he’s no longer in love with her, only to be told, “I didn’t know you ever were.” It’s basically a pretty wild comedy, but one with a great deal of heart and humanity — and something more than just laughs on its mind.