Following the staggering critical success of Rushmore, director Wes Anderson was given a bigger budget and slightly more creative freedom. He chose to use it to create his own take on a family drama in The Royal Tenenbaums. Focusing on a family from New York City, New York The Royal Tenenbaums begins patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) as he separates from his estranged wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) and leaves his prodigal children, finance whiz Chas (Ben Stiller), playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) and tennis star Richie (Luke Wilson). Years later, all the children are struggling in a post-success slump and upon hearing that Etheline plans to marry her accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), Royal suddenly returns with news that he has stomach cancer.
Anderson has never been one to conform to mainstream sensibilities somehow manages to increase the quirky nature of his first two films in The Royal Tenenbaums. Instead of presenting a bigger scale narrative thanks to the increase budget, he actual tones down the action to being set almost exclusively in one house in New York. We are told it is New York, although we see none of the classic landmarks to back this up.
The assembled cast reads like a who’s who of Hollywood through the ages and each one gives an interesting performance. Due to the filming style, it’s tough to truly engage, although Bill Murray’s turn as Raleigh St. Clair is funny enough to separate him from the rest. The really fascinating characters however are Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow who play it so straight and subdued that they might be catatonic, but who engross the most with their charming story of heartbreak. Where The Royal Tenenbaums really excels is in the comedy. Anderson’s quick-fire wit and exceptionally smart dialogue drive that narrative far better than actual action could.
There are precious few moments of genuine emotion with Anderson preferring to show his audience the fake Hollywood setup of film-making. One imagines the final goal was to distance us from the obviously fake to the point that we begin to find moments of genuine humanity, remove the sentimentality for the sake of a deeper character investment. It doesn’t quite work, although the scenes involving Richie and Margot come closest, notably the hair-cutting breakdown which is as poignant and heart-breaking a scene as I can remember.
Unfortunately the sacrifice of realism and increased Anderson-esque quirkiness comes at a cost, which is long periods of frustration and an unfulfilling conclusion. The Royal Tenenbaums is however memorable and the acting performances from the stellar cast as well as individual scenes of magnificence elevate it well above the average drama. It’s tough to fault Anderson in reality because he, unlike so many peers, has a definitive style and approach to film-making that even an increase in budget and expectation cannot dampen. It’s no Rushmore, but it still ranks as one of his finest films.