The Royal Tenenbaums (Criterion Collection) Review

Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) have three children--Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson), and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is adopted. The three kids are all geniuses in different ways. In his early teens, Chas made a fortune on real-estate; Margot received a Braverman grant of $50,000 in the ninth grade after becoming a successful child playwright; Richie was a junior champion tennis player and won the U.S. Nationals three years in a row. However, when Royal and Etheline separated, the kids' abilities diminished almost overnight, and they all faded into obscurity. Years later, Royal is broke, and has been kicked out of the hotel that he has been staying in since the separation (entirely on credit). To make matters worse, his now grown-up children refuse to acknowledge him, and he finds that Etheline has found new love for the first time in accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). Thus, Royal hatches a plan - He'll pretend he has a few weeks to live, and then reintegrate himself with the family.

After giving the world a massive cult favourite in Rushmore, Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson (who is now also enjoying life as a huge movie star) have collaborated again on The Royal Tenenbaums, a film that earned them an Oscar nomination for their screenplay and which features a fantastic all-star cast ensemble. Cinema audiences either gave the film a tremendous reception, or walked out before it had finished, citing it to be dreadfully unfunny. It's interesting to see how the perception of a movie can influence one's own enjoyment and it's easy to see why some people didn't get the joke. Here is a film in which two of the biggest comedy stars in Hollywood, Ben Stiller and Bill Murray, are given two of the most serious roles in the film. Also, the comedy from The Royal Tenenbaums is conjured up from something deeper than the usual slapstick level. We laugh at the film, only if we take the time to fully acquaint ourselves with the many characters that exist in the film's own quaint universe.

In The Royal Tenenbaums, there are at least ten major characters, but this isn't an Altman tale, inter-linking each character's story strands; this is more a film equally split into traditional comedy and serious drama. At times, it's hard to tell whether you are supposed to laugh at the film or feel genuinely saddened, and this is precisely what director Anderson is hoping for. Some sequences from the film are so drenched in pain and despair, that we the audience laugh at anything we can pinpoint as being remotely funny, just to keep our spirits in a happier frame of mind.

The Royal Tenenbaums is one of those films that is better on each subsequent viewing. The plot is easy to follow, but you still feel that you need a second viewing, maybe just to get over the unconventional literary narrative it throws at you from the start. The film's narrative drive zig-zags so ferociously between humour and sadness that you would feel more prepared watching it for a second time, so if you didn't like it the first time, there is a good chance you will love it on second viewing. However, there still should enough on a first viewing to leave a grin permanently planted on your face, and it wouldn't be surprising if Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson supersede other cult-icons such as Kevin Smith in terms of popularity in a few years time. Rumours are that Wilson was too busy being a movie star to contribute much to the script, and that Anderson practically wrote it all himself.

The film seems to wish to convey the notion that each character is badly in need of a decent familial structure in their life. The characters are all mostly blessed with wealth, potential-genius or fabulous careers, and yet they are all lacking happiness and focus because of their need for the people that are deemed important by them to be around them. This applies to all of the characters, from Royal, who clearly observes the need to re-align himself with his family, through to Richie, who is so obsessively in love with Margot that he'd almost die without her. Being a tennis champion didn't matter to Richie, he just wanted Margot. Despite the bleak framework, The Royal Tenenbaums actually carries with it a positive moral code, that a person's relationship with his/her own family is the most important factor in terms of character makeup than any other environmental conditioning.

The cast are magnificent across the board. Gene Hackman has delicious fun as Royal Tenenbaum, and there are character similarities between Royal and Bill Murray's Herman Blume in Rushmore. Hackman won a Golden Globe for his performance, and yet the Oscars Academy once again turns its back on comedy by refusing to nominate him (at least he's already won two Oscars). At a screening of the film, Anderson revealed that Hackamn was difficult to work with and that the veteran actor basically directed himself. If this is true, then it's hard to argue with Hackman's self-belief when viewing the results of his performance on film. Owen Wilson is already a star, but judging by the film it looks as if his younger brother Luke Wilson has all of the qualities of a likeable film lead. Even Gwyneth doesn't come across as her usual whiny self, and actually plays a character with edge. She was always better when playing darker characters as opposed to mere A-list girlfriends. Even Kumar Pallana, who plays the Indian servant Pagoda, seems to give the character the sense of perfect loyalty and comic timing, suggesting he too can compete with the bigger stars.

One of the many beauties of cinema is the notion that a film can be situated in a world removed from everyday reality. The Royal Tenenbaums seems to exist in a sort of seventies' New York, equipped with all of the fashion details and aesthetic qualities. The production design by David Wasco seems to embody a bleak seventies paranoia thriller, with large spiralling urban landscapes mixed with a decidedly old-fashioned decorative display. Combined with Robert Yeoman's cinematography, the film envelopes the viewer into its own world and renders it totally convincing, as if the world of The Royal Tenenbaums is evoked in the viewer's own imagination.

The soundtrack is magnificent. There are at least three moments in the film where the marriage of music and film push Anderson's efforts to near masterful levels. When Royal and his grandchildren embark on a mischievious montage, it's brilliantly backed by Paul Simon's Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard, giving the sequence a bouncy and joyous touch. When Margot steps off the bus to greet Richie, it's played in slow motion to Nico's These Days, heightening the impact Margot has on Richie's life. When we are treated to a montage of Margot's past lovers, it's backed ferociously by the Ramones' Judy Is A Punk, a song that could drive any narrative because of its cut-to-the-chase approach. Even Mark Mothersbaugh's typical score gives the film a cold, if jolting framework that links many of the offbeat sequences together in a cohesive fashion.

In a year of endless sequels and remakes, it's refreshing to see a film that is hard to categorise. The Royal Tenenbaums destroys convention, destroys genre and gleefully plays with any assumptions of an audience. It's one of the most courageous films to be made by a mainstream studio in the last few years, and there is no reason why the film will not continue to endear itself to many people's hearts and minds.

Academy Awards 2001

Academy Award Nominations 2001
Best Original Screenplay - Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson

Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.40:1, the transfer, typical of Criterion, is fantastic. Crisp, detailed and rich in colour and depth of image, the transfer does a marvellous job in giving the film a suitable presentation. Devoid of artefacts, and mostly without any grain, the transfer easily suggests why films should be viewed in their original aspect ratio.

Presented in both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mixes, The Royal Tenenbaums has been given sound options despite the film lacking any action-orientated dynamic sound or any major sound events. Still, the dialogue is presented in a very sharp level of clarity and volume, and the background surround elements, despite being limited, are given decent spatial channelling along with the film's fine musical soundtrack. Generally, there is little difference between the DTS and 5.1 mixes, but at least viewers have the choice.

Menu: The usual stylish but minimal Criterion menu, given a minimalist hand-written/sketched approach, and backed with music from the film.

Packaging: Despite people worrying about the differences between the Canadian and American packaging of this release, there is actually very little difference. The Canadian version is not multi-lingual, and contains the proper Criterion packaging and spine (number 157) housed in a double amaray packaging. This is then housed in a cardboard dustcover that contains the same design as the US version other than a small Canadian flag on the back. Two inserts are included inside - a large fold out chapter insert which contains some very good production notes, and a fold out insert devoted to showcasing the set illustrations of the Tenenbaum House. Both are excellent, and are typical of Criterion.


Audio Commentary With Wes Anderson: Wes Anderson is a fine commentator on his own films, chaotically switching between glowing anecdotes and technical insights. It's very telling that Owen Wilson is not around to record the commentary with him, or indeed any of the other cast members, but Anderson copes well with handling the commentary by himself. It's interesting to hear how he has based most of the sequences of the film on other films or real-life events, and it's also interesting to see how much effort Anderson invests into the film, from the smallest detail to the largest set-piece. Overall, it's a very good commentary, and one that will surely please fans of the film.

With The Filmmaker: This is a good twenty-seven minute documentary in the With The Filmmaker series devoted to showcasing a sort of video-diary approach to Wes Anderson's involvement in making The Royal Tenenbaums. If anything, this documentary illustrates how relentless Anderson is when it comes to securing even the smallest details in the form equate to what his imagination dreams them to be. The documentary is interesting but slightly disjointed, and could do with a more traditional 'making of' approach. Presented in fullscreen.

The Peter Bradley Show: This supposedly 'fake' chat show segment has various bit part members of the cast from Anderson's three films being interviewed by Peter Bradley. Bradley as a chat show host is woefully misinformed, and it isn't long before the drawn out silences become painful to watch. This is either a funny fourteen minute 'mockumentary' or a dreadful example of how to hold a chat show. Either way, it's very funny, and worth watching if you can stand the deathly pace of it all.

Interviews: This is a good collection of interviews from the many cast members, in which they talk to camera about their own characters and their reasons for agreeing to star in the film. Although nothing more than promotional fare, they are very enjoyable to watch, and very insightful. The fact that there isn't as much character development in the film as one would like, due to the myriad of characters on display makes it refreshing to have here a small section devoted to each character by the actors that play them. The interviews last in total for twenty-six minutes, and there is an option to play them individually or together as one long segment.

Scrapbook: Just like the title suggests, this is a quirky collection of many small items from the production. Stills is a good assortment of the stills photographs taken by set photographer James Hamilton.

Cut-Scenes: This is merely two short scenes trimmed from the film, presented in anamorphic widescreen, and without any explanation as to why they were cut. Storyboards is Wes Anderson's annotated script complete with hand-drawn storyboards. Margot is a collection of paintings of Margot drawn by Richie in the film, that are actually painted by Eric Chase Anderson, the director's brother. Covers is a collection of book covers made specifically for the film, and are fun to look at. Murals contains details of Richie's bedroom murals, again with illustrations from Eric Chase Anderson. M.C. contains many of the much talked-about paintings by Miguel Calderòn, along with a short radio segment discussing how the paintings came to appear in the film. This is very interesting, and a surprising feature to be buried amongst the rest of the scrapbook.

Trailers: Two full-length trailers are presented as one reel in anamorphic widescreen. Both trailers are excellent, and present the film faithfully coupled with some good soundtrack choices.

Hidden Features: In the Main Menu screen of the second disc, highlight without selecting The Peter Bradley Show, and then move up using the remote, and the arrow will be pointing towards the Criterion logo. Select this, and you will see a funny introduction to the DVD from Ben Stiller. In the Scrapbook menu, clicking on the top-left painting, or clicking on the far-bottom painting, will reveal short but funny outtakes. Clicking on the small mouse in the bottom-left corner will also provide a surprise.


A strikingly original and joyous movie without a trace of sentiment, The Royal Tenenbaums is a cult movie that deserves to be loved by the masses. Criterion's DVD is well thought-out, with good extras and no filler items, although their output seems slightly less adventurous than it could have been. Even so, it's a fabulous package, and one that should be an integral part of any DVD collection.

9 out of 10
9 out of 10
8 out of 10
9 out of 10



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