The Royal Tenenbaums (review)

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Dream a Little Dream of New York

(Best of 2001)

They never say it’s New York, and the city on the screen is full of places no one has ever heard of: Archer Avenue, Little Tokyo, Eagles Island. But this is unmistakably the Big Apple, a city of diverse neighborhoods and diverse people, a city on a hill that can’t help but draw the literary and the adventurous and feed the intellectual lives of those already there. If this isn’t a parallel universe New York, it’s the city in this world about which people say, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”
So perhaps it’s not surprising that this vision, this valentine to a vibrant and alluring city would come not from native New Yorkers but native Texans Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson (both wrote the script; Anderson directs; Rushmore also sprang from their collaboration). Perhaps a lifelong New Yorker couldn’t truly understand how New York looks to a sympathetic outsider. A New Yorker who made a film like The Royal Tenenbaums would be… Woody Allen, I suppose, but Allen hasn’t made a movie as alive as this, as full of unabashed love of New York as this, in a long time.

The Tenenbaums live at the corner
of Archer Avenue and 291st Street.

The Tenenbaums have a bit of the fantastical, the fabled, about them, too. They aren’t royalty — pater’s name is Royal, though he’d been deposed as the head of the family decades ago. Before his estrangement from his wife, though, he and Etheline (Gene Hackman: Behind Enemy Lines, The Mexican and Anjelica Huston: The Mists of Avalon, Ever After) raised a family of geniuses, as she described in her book, Family of Geniuses: Margo, an award-winning playwright; Chas, a financial prodigy; and Richie, a tennis star. The kids burned out early, though, and now, as adults, are mightily depressed and miserable. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow: Shallow Hal, Bounce) is unhappily married to Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray: Cradle Will Rock, Rushmore), a neurologist and writer; her perpetually kohl-rimmed eyes accentuate her perpetual pout. Chas (Ben Stiller: Meet the Parents, Mystery Men) is turning his own young sons into mini, basket-case versions of himself after the accidental death of his wife. Richie (Luke Wilson: Legally Blonde, Charlie’s Angels) is forever on the run, literally and psychological, from the spectacular crash-and-burn end to his tennis career. Suitors are out in droves for Etheline, including the family accountant, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover: The Prince of Egypt, Lethal Weapon 4). Royal hasn’t spoken to any of them in years.

Royal lives at The Lindbergh Palace
hotel on North 13th Avenue.

Like a New Yorker cartoon come to life, droll and sad and knowing at the same time, The Royal Tenenbaums is sublime. When an illness among them finally brings all the Tenenbaums — and old family friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson: Behind Enemy Lines, Shanghai Noon) together again, in that Archer Avenue house so full of history, the sudden collision of all their neuroses and secrets and hang-ups and confused feelings for one another create a portrait of a family even more dysfunctional than normal. Funny and moving and unpredictable, the film — highly stylized and literary — touches on the strangeness of families, how we don’t really know the people we’re closest to, sometimes, how betrayal and failure and disaster can often define a family more than its successes and happinesses.

So you take the Irving Isle Ferry to Mockingbird
Heights and look for the 375th Street Y…

And then, that melancholy — so wonderfully highlighted in one non-holiday scene scored with music from A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is, I think, the first time a filmmaker has recognized the gloominess of some of that music — contrasts with the almost obsessive detail Anderson and Wilson and their designers put into the film, the enticing signs in the background you squint to read for the chocolately tidbitness of it, because you know there’ll be a nugget of this what makes this city so New Yorkish. (The license plates on cars don’t have a state or city on them, just “Department of Streets,” which is so right.) So you’ve got a little tear in your eye over something Ben Stiller (yes, Ben Stiller) just said, and then it’s like, “Ooo, what’s that on the wall over there?”

It’s intellectual lunacy of splendid order, creating an entire world that’s simultaneously recognizable and tantalizing new, and an entire family of people both ridiculously improbable and heartbreakingly real. The more I think about The Royal Tenenbaums, the more I realize that this isn’t really a film to be analyzed, just experienced.

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