Since watching The French Dispatch (2021), I have given myself the side quest of viewing every Wes Anderson film. Most of his recent work I have already seen. This means going back to the beginning. In the case of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), it is almost the beginning. I have vague recollections of seeing previews for it in the theaters long ago and not being impressed. I had different tastes in film in those days. In particular, I remember seeing Ben Stiller in it. As somebody who had enjoyed his more emotive roles like There’s Something About Mary (1998) and Zoolander (2001), it seemed strange to me to see him in such a production. Silly me for judging movies based on their trailer. Then again, what else do we have to base our cinematic choices? Now that I appreciate Wes Anderson a little more, I am enjoying catching up with the rest of his film library. With The Royal Tenenbaums specifically, I still think Stiller’s is the weakest part, but that is another discussion.
The Royal Tenenbaums begins as whimsically as any other Wes Anderson production. There is a narrator (Alec Baldwin) talking over a library book of the same title, launching into an introduction of the eponymous family. Their patriarch (Gene Hackman) also has the same name, and the first words you hear from him are explaining to his genius children that he and their mother, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), are divorcing. His matter-of-fact way of delivering this news, and the reasons for it, tell you all you need to know about his disposition. The children take it with varying degrees of emotion. Chas (Aram Aslanian-Persico), a boy with a preternatural gift for numbers and finance, is unmoved given the way Royal always seemed to favor his brother. His brother is named Richie (Amedeo Turturro), and he is an extremely gifted athlete. He is also in love with his adopted sister Margot (Irina Gorovaia). The fact that she is not Royal’s own issue is something he repeats whenever he introduces her to people. She has a talent for writing, and later becomes a renowned playwright. Royal then leaves Etheline to raise the children on her own, with occasional pop-ins to show just enough that he does not seem to care for them at all. We then move to several years later. A grown-up Chas (Ben Stiller), paranoid about everything after the death of his wife in a plane crash, decides to move back home. So, too, does the reclusive, older Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is disillusioned with everything, especially her husband Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray). The last to travel home is a listless Richie (Luke Wilson), post-tennis career, who is prompted to return by his recent admission to his best friend, Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), of his feelings for Margot. They are soon to be joined by Royal, who has been kicked out of the hotel in which he had been living for the past twenty-two years. His first instinct is to try to rekindle his relationship with Etheline, regardless of her budding relationship with the long-time family accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). Thinking that he will not simply be able to reingratiate himself into her life, he makes up a story about dying of stomach cancer, and that he only has six weeks to live. With the help of the family butler Pagoda (Kumar Pallana) and the hotel doorman Dusty (Seymour Cassel), he is able to convince his wife and children to give him a room upstairs, complete with medical devices and fake prescriptions. While there, he does everything he can to reconnect with those he supposedly loves, but has only mixed success. Meanwhile, Eli, who had been having an affair with Margot, tells her of Richie’s feelings. This is in keeping with Eli’s drug addiction, for which he refuses to get any help. Raleigh, too, is suspicious of Margot. In turn, Raleigh and Richie hire a private investigator to look into the secretive Margot’s past. At the same time, the smoking and cheeseburger eating by Royal draws Henry’s attention, and his own investigations reveal Royal’s lie. Royal is then kicked out of the house. As for Raleigh and Richie’s efforts, they learn that Margot has had a slew of lovers and marriages. Raleigh takes this news hard, but Richie is keenly affected to the point that he attempts suicide. Doing so brings everyone back together, and allows Richie to be more open about his feelings for Margot. Though he seems to have to live with them secretly being in love with each other, he is nonetheless encouraged by Royal to not hide his feelings. Royal also has found a new purpose in life, getting a job as an elevator operator at the hotel in which he once resided. He also learns to live with the fact that Etheline is in love with Henry, and grants her the final divorce that allows them to marry. Finally, he is able to make amends with Chas when he gets his family a new dog following the death of their old one, the result of Eli crashing into the Tenenbaum home while high. In fact, Chas and Royal become so close that, as the movie winds down, he is there when Royal dies of a heart attack.
As I have indicated in reviews of other Wes Anderson films, The Royal Tenenbaums is another example of the director showing the audience the kinds of things a kid would sneak a peek at when their parents are not looking. There are brief scenes of nudity and drug use. The language can be a bit coarse. It is also difficult to like Royal. He does not treat his family well, and he encourages his grandchildren at one point to steal from a convenience store. All the same, the film is about his redemption. Redemption is a term that can be used to describe many films. It makes for a sensible story and it appeals to my Catholic senses. Still, what does it mean to be redeemed? One of the phrases often used in talking about Jesus is that He came to redeem to the world. What does that mean? Before His advent, there was no recourse to God because sin was in the world. Jesus died for those sins, thus freeing us from them. Think about this in regards to Royal. He lived an unrepentant life, philandering, not caring about his family, and all while in the lap of luxury in a fancy hotel. It is amazing what a single event can do for someone. There is another word for it: miracle. For Royal, it was being kicked out of not only the hotel, but out of his family’s home. It made him reassess his priorities, and to live a life of love. This is something that God calls all of us to do. Granted, he may have still been illegally riding on the back of garbage trucks with Chas and his grandsons, but at least he had the love of his family. Everyone was bitter towards Royal until he made the decision to change his life. What more can one do?
As indicated in the last paragraph, there are a few parts of The Royal Tenenbaums that should be avoided. The characters are not ones this Catholic reviewer would typically get into, but I enjoy the fact that they all seem to care about one another in the end. Say what you will about Wes Anderson, but he has the ability to make the viewer sit through his films and feel something at the end. For me, this is usually sentimentality. Being a sentimental fool, I will take that every time.