The Royal Tenenbaums at 20: Wes Anderson’s finest and funniest movie

The precise dysfunctional family film set a template for the writer-director’s oeuvre and gave Gene Hackman and his on-screen offspring some of their greatest roles

“I had a rough year, dad.”

The whole of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums builds to those six words, one syllable each. The line carries the weight of a family entombed by two decades of failure, depression and personal rancor, but finding some small path forward, a moment of reconciliation that might keep their disappointments from defining their future. Anderson has a gift for packing big emotions into small gestures – think about the look of recognition on Bill Murray’s face when he finally meets Max Fischer’s father in Rushmore – and this father-son moment pays off the countless other details that make it possible. This is why Anderson’s best work holds up so beautifully on repeat viewings: they’re dense with feeling, yet ruthlessly economical.

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Twenty years later, The Royal Tenenbaums feels like his signature achievement, proof that he could manage an ensemble like a complex organism, with many individual parts harmonizing in perfect balance. Where his previous films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, orbited around one charismatic visionary, this one covers an entire “family of geniuses”, taking care to give proper weight to every person and relationship. There’s plenty of Andersonian touches on the soundtrack, in the costume and production design, and in the crisp, witty exchanges of dialogue, but he never gets lost in his own fussy pointillism. Take a step back and this is a film about a family that’s fallen short of the dreams it had for itself. In that’s it’s touchingly commonplace.

From the beginning, the melancholy heart of Anderson’s comedy is masked by dry wit, like the callous patriarch of the Tenenbaum family, Royal (Gene Hackman), explaining that while it’s not their fault their parents are separating, “obviously, we made certain sacrifices as the result of having children”. While it’s clear that Royal’s wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) was the primary driver of their precocious kids’ success, the separation also helps account for their unraveling as young adults. Then again, they may have all just peaked too early: Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson), and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) might have dazzled as savants in business, tennis, and theater, respectively, but their talent still needs to evolve as young adults, when it isn’t such a novelty.

When the narration finally catches up to the Tenenbaums in the present day, Etheline’s days as an empty-nester are about to come to a precipitous end. Still reeling from a plane crash that killed his wife and spared his two sons, Chas moves back into the crumbling multi-story family home on Archer Avenue, citing safety concerns. Facing eviction from the hotel that’s taken the last of his dwindling fortune, Royal fakes a terrible case of stomach cancer to convince Etheline to put him up for the last six weeks of his life. From there, Margot uses the opportunity to move out on her second husband, a grizzled neurologist (Bill Murray), and that’s enough to bring Richie home from his literal time at sea, because he’s in love with Margot. (She’s adopted. Such relationships are “frowned upon”, as Royal notes, “but what isn’t these days?”)

It seems like a cute gesture for Anderson to start The Royal Tenenbaums as if it were a book checked out from the New York Public Library, similar to the theatrical curtains open and close Rushmore. But the film’s literary qualities, along with Anderson’s gift for the quick flashback or musical montage, allow for the elegant layering of time, with revelations from the past coming exactly when they can have the biggest impact. When we finally learn why, for example, Richie had an epic meltdown on the tennis court, it’s a moment used to underscore how little Royal understands about his son. A reference to the wooden prosthetic on one of Margot’s fingers is explained later by a hilarious flashback to a reunion with her birth family in rural Indiana.

Asked if she tried to sew the finger back on, Margot can only sigh, “It wasn’t worth it.” A great punchline, but like many other in the film, suffused with sadness. One of Anderson’s greatest talents is his lightness of touch: The Royal Tenenbaums is about disappointment, regret, grief, loneliness, and at-times suicidal depression, and it has the Nico, Nick Drake, and Elliott Smith songs to prove it. Beyond the separation of their parents and breakup of the family that followed, the Tenenbaum siblings feel like their lives are in a state of permanent anticlimax and they can’t even turn to each other for reassurance. That extends to their neighbor Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), who might enjoy literary success for his historical fiction, but sulks over his own love for Margot and his continuing desire to be part of the Tenenbaum family.

In the middle of this vast sea of melancholy, Hackman splashes around brilliantly as Royal, who’s an important catalyst because everyone has to react to his presence, even if his insensitivity and deceit infuriates them. In Anderson’s neatly ordered world, Royal gets to be the chaos agent, the scamp who eats three cheeseburgers a day with a stomach tumor and “brews some recklessness” in his grandsons by treating them to an afternoon of dangerous and illegal activity. It’s a weird gift for the other Tenenbaums to bond in opposition to him, and then to realize that he cares about them more than they assume. Anderson seems to agree that a little recklessness is what they all need.

Their reward isn’t renewed brilliance, as if togetherness alone would be enough rekindle an old spark within the Tenenbaums. Maybe they were never geniuses at all. Maybe Margot was always a mediocre playwright, and Richie got as far as he was ever going to get on the tennis circuit. In a perfect grace note toward the end of the film, we’re told that Margot’s new play opened to mixed reviews and closed two weeks later. No matter. The Tenenbaums get to be a family again. That’s all the magic the film needs to muster.