out of five
: 110 mins
Wonderful, quirky, offbeat comedy-drama from the writer-director team
behind Rushmore – a terrific script, a superb ensemble cast and a great soundtrack all add up to make The Royal Tenenbaums one of the best films of the year.
The Royal Tenenbaums is the third film by the team of director Wes Anderson and his writing partner, actor Owen Wilson (who also appears in the film), following the little-seen Bottle Rocket (currently showing on FilmFour) and the much-loved and critically acclaimed Rushmore.
However, where fans of the latter will almost certainly love this just as much, the fact that it has been somewhat mis-marketed as an out-and-out wacky comedy may lead to something of a backlash, because the humour here is subtle and quirky, rather than laugh-out-loud funny. Still, this is unquestionably one of the best films of the year, and one of those films that will definitely benefit from repeat viewings.
There are various similarities with Rushmore, both physical (both feature Bill Murray, both have wonderfully eclectic soundtracks with an emphasis on late 1960s hits) and thematic – where Rushmore focussed on a child genius and his complicated relationships, this has a whole family of child geniuses and also focuses on their dysfunctional family relationships.
The film is set up like a novel – Alec Baldwin narrates and the film is
divided up into ‘chapters’, though the production is not actually based on a real book. It’s set in New York, but it’s a curiously time-less New York, one that seems both modern and old-fashioned at the same time.
Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum, the estranged father to a family of failed child prodigies: financial whiz kid Chas (Ben Stiller), tennis pro Richie (Luke Wilson) and novelist Margot (Gwynneth Paltrow).
After a splendid opening montage sequence that introduces all the characters (another trait in common with Rushmore), it becomes apparent that Royal can no longer afford to stay at his hotel suite, so he pretends he’s dying (a superb scene) in order to move back in with both his children and his ex-wife (Angelica Huston plays Etheline Tenenbaum) with the intention of making amends.
As with Rushmore (yet again), there isn’t really that much of a plot to speak of. Secrets are revealed and wounds are healed, but this is about as far from the typical Hollywood dysfunctional family weepie-drama as it’s possible to get and it’s all the more effective for being under-played.
At first glance, some of the scenes may seem slow or somehow unfinished, but you’ll find they stay with you long after the film has ended.
The script is fantastic – Wilson and Anderson have put a lot of work into these characters and it shows. There are many wonderful, quotable lines and many great scenes and weird moments – highlights include: Owen Wilson’s walk-out from a TV show where he’s meant to be discussing his book ("Wildcattin’"); Royal’s hilarious ‘day out’ with his grandchildren; the montage that reveals Margot’s ‘secret life’ and Bill Murray’s (who plays her older husband) deadpan reaction to it.
The acting is superb, too – Hackman deservedly picked up a Golden Globe (and was subsequently robbed at the Oscar nominations), but the whole cast are excellent, with Paltrow in particular giving the kind of performance that reminds you why you liked her in the first place – her ‘almost-smile’ on being re-united with Richie is yet another one of many great moments.
In short, The Royal Tenenbaums is one of the best films of the year. It has great performances, a great script and a fabulous soundtrack; though it is not the film you may be expecting if you’ve seen the trailer or the print ads. It’s a film to be seen and savoured again and again. Unmissable.