The Royal Tenenbaums 2001 ★★★★★
Reviewed Jun 01, 2012
This review reportedly contains spoilers.
I can handle the truth.
Adam Goron said:
In the hands of a different director, The Royal Tenenbaums could have been a vastly different movie - a screwball, cut-up farce with zero wit and even less heart. Now, I know you could level that charge at a great many films, but seriously, take a moment and picture the basic plot of this film (a man fakes having cancer to reconcile with his estranged family) in the hands of the Farrelly brothers.
You can see it, can't you? You can see what might have been.
Fortunately, what might have been is not what is, and, as an added blessing from the universe, I don't think The Royal Tenenbaums could have ever germinated fully in the mind of anyone other than Wes Anderson. The film is a curious breed, a comedic portrait of loneliness: its characters (all of them - not just the three Tenenbaum children) are sad, isolated creatures, mired in years of failure and emotional neglect. All of the movie is building to their eventual reawakening (which they all undergo, to a thematically appropriate extent). But the genius of The Royal Tenenbaums lies in how masterfully Anderson culls humor from the lives of all these lost souls - and how that humor is defined not by presence, but by absence.
In the middle of the film, there's a scene in a hospital waiting room in which Raleigh St. Clair (a grizzled, ethically-questionable Bill Murray) sits down next to Margot Tenenbaum, his wife; what ensues between them is a frank conversation about her infidelity and secrecy, and it's funny. Not because of the subject matter, but because the characters don't bother engaging each other with their eyes during it. They both fix their deadened gaze straight ahead, off beyond the camera. Their detachment isn't a filmmaking flaw; it's a triumph. Anderson sees clearly that it's distance which defines these people - even when they're close together. That's why Henry proposes to Etheline in terms of tax savings, and not of love. That's why Ari and Uzi dress and behave exactly like miniaturized versions of their father - because what else could they be? And that's why Richie is in love with Margot - who else could all his regret and emptiness push him to love?
If you're still reading this, you've probably seen me use words like "lonely", "regret", "isolated", "detachment" - and you could mistake this film for a joyless dredge through a grey rainy day. Let me reassure you: it's not. Yes, it's an emotional vacancy that defines these characters, but it defines them all in different ways. Each member of the Tenenbaum clan has their own distinct personality and wit, and the humor in the film is the result of all these people communicating with each other in the common language of misery.
The poster for The Royal Tenenbaums features the tagline, "Family's Not A Word - It's A Sentence" - that's the truth at the heart of the film. Every character begins this story imprisoned in a decrepit, half-tangible dungeon of their own legacy. What ensues is a jailbreak.