The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson’s third feature, sees a splintered family being reunited when the estranged patriach, played by a never-better Gene Hackman, claims to be dying. It’s one of my favorite Anderson films, and here’s some reasons why:
5. Eli Cash: Wes Anderson is great at many things. One of these is creating exemplary supporting characters, and another is providing Owen Wilson (who also co-wrote the screenplay) with great roles to play. I’d go so far as to say Wilson’s best work can be found amongst Anderson’s career, and Eli Cash could be my favorite of his characters. Cash is one of the few main players who isn’t a part of the Tenenbaum family, though since a child he has been an almost honorary son due to his close friendship with Richie (played as an adult by Owen’s brother Luke – it never stops amusing me that the only people amongst the cast that are actually related in real life play the only characters not related in the film). Even as an adult Eli sends his newspaper clippings to Angelica Huston’s Etheline Tenenbaum, his all-but-adoptive mother. Eli is probably the most fun person in the film – he’s essentially a child in a man’s body, and as such he rarely fails to bring a smile to my face. When Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot returns home to find Eli in her wardrobe, just wearing his underwear, well that’s just hilarious. As is Eli’s escape through the window, only to be spotted and caught by Royal (Hackman). Eli’s response? The pose above, pointing at Royal like a lunatic. Love it.
4. The Narration: A great deal of The Royal Tenenbaums is devoted to books. At least three of the principal cast are published authors, and there are various shots of the books they’ve written, tesselated in an inconic fashion, so it makes a great deal of sense for The Royal Tenenbaums to itself be a book, and being read to us in the dry, deadpan tones of no less than Alec Baldwin. He gets a lot of the best lines and quite a few punchlines, in a manner that would be heavily borrowed by Ron Howard for Arrested Development some years later, and it’s really a shame that Baldwin hasn’t yet been brought back into the Anderson universe, as I’d love to see him on screen in a future film. You have to remember that this was a pre-30 Rock Baldwin, whose casting choice must have been somewhat of a suprise at the time, but his flat manner of speaking with the just the right amount of intonation when required fits the bill perfectly.
3. Richie’s Tent: Part way through the film, Richie gives up his room for Royal to sleep in, thereby causing Richie to pitch a tent instead. I love this tent, and that’s coming from a guy who cannot comprehend the general appeal of camping, even when it’s done indoors. It’s a perfect microcosm of Richie’s world, bedecked with space wallpaper, neatly arranged toy cars, an assortment of trophies, an illuminated globe and one of those spinning chandelier things, and it really showcases how the three Tenenbaum children – Margot, Richie and Ben Stiller’s Chas – are still very much like the kids they used to be. There is no real need for the tent to be there – no-one else is using the room it has been pitched in – but that’s something a child would do. Any other director would have gone further and made it a sheet-and-pillow fort for that extra level of childishness, but Richie’s bright yellow tent, with its glowing walls and perfectly symmetrical shot positioning, provided Anderson with another chance to use his trademark style and quirkiness.
2. Royal Tenenbaum: Eli Cash may be my favorite supporting character, but there’s no denying how effective Gene Hackman is as Royal. He’s an actor I’ve admired for a very long time, and it saddens me every tie I remember he has retired, as I’d love to see what he’d be doing now. Royal is one of the most fully developed characters I’ve seen in any film, made even more so by the way his three children all take after him in various ways, so not only do we get Hackman’s portrayal, but Luke Wilson’s, Stiller’s and Paltrow’s as well. He’s a loveable arsehole who seems to have effectively screwed up every aspect of his offspring’s lives without really trying to, just by being a genuinely horrible person who didn’t necessarily have bad intentions as much as he had no intentions towards his children whatsoever. He gives Margot a very frank, honest and above all critical appraisal of her first play – performed by her and her brothers in maimed animal costumes – during Margot’s birthday party, he shoots Chas with a BB gun when they’re on the same team – the BB would remain lodged in his hand until adulthood – and did I mention he pretends to be dying just so his family will see him? And he’s racist – Danny Glover’s Henry Sherman, a new love interest for Royal’s wife Etheline, is called “Coltrane” by Royal, who then denies it, and is asked if he “Wants to talk some jive?” Like I said; arsehole. And yet, he’s the heart of the film. He’s the main character, the guy who changes the most as a person throughout the movie. Anderson regularly includes less-than-admirable father figures in his films, and Royal for me is the most iconic.
1. The Suicide Attempt: It’s not just Owen Wilson who thrives more within Wes Anderson’s work than he does elsewhere; the same applies for his brother Luke too. (You can say the same about the “other” Wilson brother, Andrew, too, although mainly because most of his work seems to be in Anderson’s movies.) The high point of Luke’s career could well be this scene in which, having discovered his life-long love and adopted sister Margot has been seeing his best friend Eli, Richie decides to kill himself. I can’t do this scene any better justice than Robert did earlier this month when he discussed it as one of his favorite scenes, so instead of going on about it more here I’ll just send you over to his site, where you can actually watch the thing too.
Are you a fan of The Royal Tenenbaums? What do you love about it? Let us know in the comments.