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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
2 Stars

Directed by Wes Anderson
Cast: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover, Bill Murray, Seymour Cassel, Grant Rosenmeyer, Jonah Meyerson; narrated by Alec Baldwin
2001 – 106 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language, nudity, and drug content).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 1, 2002.
Special note (February 2014): While I stand by many of my original criticisms of "The Royal Tenenbaums," revisiting the film twelve years after its release courtesy of the Criterion Collection Blu-ray revealed a dramatically uptight but creatively vibrant film that works well as a study in style and form. As a follow-up to 1998's "Rushmore" (still Anderson's reigning achievement as a director), it is a largely inferior, altogether less successful effort, but there is nonetheless a lot to appreciate. "The Royal Tenenbaums" does, in fact, deepen thematically the more one watches and studies it, and for that my rating has been lifted from one and a half stars to two and a half.

1998's "Rushmore," my choice for the best film of that respective year, divulged writer-director Wes Anderson's talent for offbeat tales with lovably oddball characters. Anderson's follow-up, "The Royal Tenenbaums," acquires the same original filmmaking style of "Rushmore," but falls apart in its over-ambition. Anderson and screenwriting partner Owen Wilson have found themselves in way over their heads with this failed attempt at mixing comedy with serious issues. In "The Royal Tenenbaums," the comedy is threadbare, the drama plays like an afterthought, and there are too many characters to thoroughly develop any one of them in the 106-minute running time.

Cleverly broken up into chapters, as if it were a book, the film tells of the Tenenbaums, a family of dysfunctional geniuses headed uncaring father, Royal (Gene Hackman), and struggling mother, Etheline (Anjelica Huston). Adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) was a Pultizer Prize winning playwright at the age of 9, while son Chas (Ben Stiller) was a teenage real estate big-shot, and son Richie (Luke Wilson) was a pro tennis player. Now all grown up and with severe individual hang-ups that have put their careers on hold, Margot, Chas, and Richie move back into the Tenenbaum home just as Royal, currently split from Etheline, returns himself, saying he only has six weeks to live.

Watching "The Royal Tenenbaums" unfold with one misstep after the next is a depressing experience made all the more calamitous because of the fall in quality from Anderson's "Rushmore." The Tenenbaum family are supposed to be dysfunctional, and they are, but no plausibly concrete reasons for this family's downfall are given. In fact, the characters and their relationships with one another are so underdeveloped and rottenly conceived that never are they even believable as a familial unit. Wes Anderson has broadened his palette with his latest picture but, in doing so, has stripped the story of warmth and the characters of empathy.

The cast, made up of one glorious talent after the next, give understated, dry performances without any room to breath. Every line of dialogue and character interaction feels written and most of the plotting is strictly at the service of what Anderson wants to happen next. Apparently, he also discouraged his actors from appearing naturalistic, as each performance seems studied and tightly methodical.

Despite being more of director Wes Anderson's fault, the acting Gene Hackman (2001's "Behind Enemy Lines"), Gwyneth Paltrow (2001's "Shallow Hal"), Anjelica Huston (1998's "Ever After"), Luke Wilson (1999's "Blue Streak"), and Owen Wilson (2001's "Zoolander") deliver is some of their weakest in memory. Other supporting work from the likes of Bill Murray (1998's "Rushmore") and Danny Glover (1998's "Beloved"), as Margot's older husband and Etheline's new beau, respectively, couldn't have possibly been more wasteful. Since there is no one to grow attached to, there is nothing to care about as the film misguidedly progresses.

The soundtrack, including the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Ramones, Nick Drake, The Clash, and The Velvet Underground, is vibrant and noticeably more alive than the living and breathing human actors are. The cinematography by Robert D. Yeoman (2000's "Beautiful") and many of the scene setups are also pure genius in their innovative nature. These choice, if too sparse, moments sneak through enough that they raise "The Royal Tenenbaums" from being just plain bad to simply an example of a great filmmaker's temporary downfall.

©2002 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman