Wes Anderson throwback review: The Royal Tenenbaums


In the weeks following up to his newest film, Isle of Dogs, Hidden Remote will take some steps back in reviewing some of Wes Anderson’s past work. For this article, we look at his 2001 comedy, The Royal Tenenbaums.

It’d be foolish to assume that everyone who has seen some or only one of Wes Anderson’s films have automatically grown fond of them or him. Wes Anderson is something of a modern day film auteur, crafting films that are so unique to his style that it has even garnered some negative reactions from the film community. Some find Anderson’s deliberately quirky, awkward and sometimes stilted filmmaking to be pretentious and completely full of itself. One of the most prominent examples of these “traits” is in the 2001 dysfunctional family comedy, The Royal Tenenbaums.

Co-written with Owen Wilson, who also stars in the film, alongside a large ensemble cast that includes, Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, among others, The Royal Tenenbaums serves as an early indicator for what has become Wes Anderson’s signature filmmaking style. Specializing in showcasing a quirky dysfunctional family brought together by unusual circumstances, Anderson’s family drama-comedy is over 17 years old and still holds up as one of the best modern comedies of the 21st century.

23 Years of Bitterness

The Royal Tenenbaums starts off with a bang, as we are introduced to the Tenenbaum family, a wealthy family consisting of the parents, Royal and Etheline (Hackman and Huston), along with three children: Chas (Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson), and Margot (Paltrow). After Royal selfishly leaves the family, the lives of the children and Etheline become increasingly complicated and bitter, enduring 23 years of disconnect and grduges. When Royal returns to visit the family, confrontations of past demons surface, making for a delightfully awkward and sharp comedy on the complicated nature of family.

Played with such a strong, absurdist presence, the characters in The Royal Tenenbaums have the innate ability of appearing entirely relatable and understandable in their motives and actions, despite their over-the-top mannerisms (played with such a delightfully stilted and awkward gusto). The Tenenbaum family’s story, told through a series of chapters narrated by Alec Baldwin, is very much presented in a novel-like structure, making the audience feel as though they’re reading a charming written account of a very interesting case study of a family. Anderson and Wilson’s screenplay portrays all these elements with sharp comedy and harsh drama, making for a wicked cinematic experience in the process.

Family Tree

The Royal Tenenbaums already has an absurdly charming story to boot, but the game performances of the diverse and talented cast elevate something solid into a true work of art AND entertainment. Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston are bright highlights as the selfish, but ultimately kind and regretful Royal and the polite, but spunky Etheline. The two, despite their divorce, possess a sweet chemistry that makes one yearn for the days when they were together. Unlike her children, Etheline’s attitude towards Royal is admirably generous, echoing humanity’s attachment to past loves. Royal is not looked down on by the filmmakers for his bad decisions in the past and Etheline is not looked down on for providing warmth and comfort to a man that has wronged her so much in the past. Questionable decisions? Yes. But Wes Anderson does not judge and he encourages the audience to do the same, in that regard.

Royal and Etheline’s children, on the other hand, are not as forgiving towards Royal. Despite their bad attitudes towards him, it no way tries to antagonize the children, whose reactions toward their father’s return is understandably skeptical and bitter. This is portrayed wonderfully by the three talented actors portraying the children. Ben Stiller’s Chas is introduced as a broken man, of sorts, suffering depression due to his wife’s death, in addition to pent up hatred for his father. Sporting an odd tracksuit for the entirety of the film, Stiller brings loads of depth and charm to an otherwise dark and depressing character, getting to flex his dramatic chops in the process. Same goes for Luke Wilson as Richie, a washed up tennis player who has feelings for his adopted sister, Margot (Paltrow). Richie barely even smiles for the good portion of this film, yet there’s a vulnerability to him that makes him endlessly watchable and entertaining. Wilson brings both laughs and tears to a seemingly one-note character to make him into a human being. An odd one, but nonetheless human.

Lastly, we have Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot, the emotionally distant adoptive sister of the children. If you though Richie seemed joyless throughout the movie, then Margot must seem like a permanent grouch. In many ways, she is, as she’s lived through life as a teenage runaway, a playwright with no motivation to write another story and a secret addiction to smoking. She’s also incredibly rude to just about anybody she knows, including her husband (played with understated charm by Bill Murray). In short, she’s quite unlikable and stoic, yet Gwyneth Paltrow brings an added layer of trauma and sadness to Margot to make her into something of a tragic antihero. She most certainly makes mistakes and it can be difficult to latch onto her, but with Anderson’s direction and Paltrow’s fantastic performance, Margot is a perfect fit for The Royal Tenenbaums.

A Perfect Balance of Style and Substance

In addition to the strange story and the even stranger characters within the story, what makes The Royal Tenenbaums a wonderful work of art and one of Wes Anderson’s best movies is the crisp and stylistic direction that Anderson employs during the making of the film. The visual presentation of the film, from its odd and specific blocking to its sudden and sweeping camera movements, the film brisks by at a fast pace, even during some of the slower scenes. There’s a consistent energy that sparks in every scene, layering this dark family story with an ironic charm that only Anderson could replicate as such. Some may say it’s too much style, but Anderson backs up his style and quirkiness with a fun and engaging story to attach to, crafting a cake with both actual cake AND frosting.

The soundtrack of The Royal Tenenbaums adds additional layers to the film, perfectly providing an in-depth and complex universe within the film. Though there isn’t a specific time and date where this film resides in, the film’s versatile soundtrack paints a setting that feels like something out of the late 70s and early 80s. There’s a heavy sense of nostalgia, but in no way does it try and use nostalgia as a crutch for the purpose of distracting the audience from other shortcomings. The setting itself isn’t a sole quirk, but rather a core for this universe to ground itself in, letting the characters and story add depth and context to the setting. Wes Anderson uses these techniques in films like The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom, but make no mistake: it’s not anything new for Anderson.


It’s crazy to think how a film that is going to turn 17 years old in 2018 can still make an impact today as an example of great comedic filmmaking, as well as the early start for one of the most acclaimed and unique filmmakers working today. Sure, The Royal Tenenbaums isn’t Wes Anderson’s first film, but I personally view this dysfunctional family romp as a significant step forward in Anderson’s career, as he showcases a confidence in his style, boldly filmed here with a talented cast to elevate the material. Having been nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar the following year (and regrettably losing), The Royal Tenenbaums clearly resonated with a large audience in its day, but now, Anderson’s newest films are taking the mantle for his most widely beloved films.

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While his other films are notable to dissect and watch as well, The Royal Tenenbaums feels just as deserving as well, despite it now being one of his more overlooked films as of late (at least in my eyes). A hilariously emotional study of family dysfunction and redemption, Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums stands out as not only one of the most underrated films in his career, but one of the most underrated comedies of the 21st century. It’s funny, sad, incredibly artsy and yet, so casual and accessible, despite its weirdness. If you’re a fan of Anderson’s work and you haven’t seen it, feel free to check it out as you anxiously wait for Isle of Dogs. It should hold over rather nicely.

The Royal Tenenbaums is available on both disc media and streaming now.