'The Royal Tenenbaums': THR's 2001 Review

2001's 'The Royal Tenenbaums'
'The Royal Tenenbaums' is a deliciously absurdist comedy that should garner critical acclaim.

On Oct. 5, 2001, Wes Anderson's whimsical ensemble comedy The Royal Tenenbaums hit theaters, eventually nabbing more than $70 million worldwide and a best original screenplay Oscar nomination. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below: 

A comedic epic documenting the struggles of the ultimate dysfunctional New York family, Wes Anderson's third feature demonstrates an impressive artistic progression for the director of the acclaimed Bottle Rocket and Rushmore.

Along with his writing partner, actor Owen Wilson, who also plays (hilariously) a supporting role in the film, Anderson reveals himself to be a highly original comic talent, impressive both for his strongly controlled deadpan style and for providing a sense of emotional heft lacking in most mainstream film comedies. While the filmmaker's propensity for preciousness threatens occasionally to overwhelm its highly contrived and quirky scenario, The Royal Tenenbaums is a deliciously absurdist comedy that should garner critical acclaim and, with the proper handling, far greater commercial success than his previous efforts. Receiving its world premiere Friday (in a not completely finished form) at the New York Film Festival, the film will be released commercially via Touchstone in late December.

Anderson has assembled a superb ensemble cast for this tale of a highly eccentric New York family who has fallen on hard times. Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston play Royal and Etheline Tenenbaum, whose three children, Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson) and the adopted Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), all achieved tremendous success in their early lives: Chas made a killing in finance and real estate, Richie was a champion tennis player, and Margot is an award-winning playwright. Then, Royal and Etheline split up, the family fell apart, and the children grew up to be neurotic failures as adults.

Chas, a widower with two young sons, is paranoid about the possibility of fire or some other disaster, and always wears a red sweatsuit so he will be ready to flee. Richie, who literally sat out his final tennis matches, now wanders the world on an ocean liner, pining in requited love for his adopted sister. Margot, who has left her neurologist husband (Bill Murray) and taken up with family friend Eli (Owen Wilson), spends most of her time soaking in the tub and smoking furiously.

Royal, broke and kicked out of the hotel where he has been living, pretends to be mortally ill with stomach cancer and worms his way back into the family home after an absence of 17 years in an attempt to "set things right." His estranged family, especially Etheline, who is being courted charmingly by her shy accountant, Henry (Danny Glover), meets his overtures with disdain.

The essentially shallow, self-absorbed Royal's efforts to come to terms with his wayward brood constitutes the essential action of the tale, which avoids cheap sentimentality in favor of subtle emotion and wacky but highly controlled humor. The film uses various literary conceits — including an explanatory prologue, an unseen narrator (Alec Baldwin) and mock book "chapter" beginnings — to establish a necessary air of distance. The witty screenplay, and Anderson's even wittier direction, fuses brilliantly comic dialogue with visual gags; a prime example of the latter is a hilarious montage depicting Royal's attempts to bond with his grandsons by leading them on such excursions as riding on the back of a garbage truck, crossing against the stoplight and shoplifting.

While the characters sometimes border on being cartoonish stereotypes, the provocative dialogue and the actors' understated performances elevate them. Paltrow, Luke Wilson and even Stiller all bring an air of sadness and desperation to their roles that lifts the film to another level. Hackman is utter perfection as the misbegotten paterfamilias, conveying beautifully Royal's underlying decency and love for his family as well as his con-man slickness. Huston is movingly stoic as his confused ex-wife, Glover is wonderfully poignant as the flustered suitor, and Kumar Pallana steals several scenes as Royal's loyal henchman. Murray, so brilliant in Rushmore, is given surprisingly little to do as Margot's confused husband but still manages to find some moments.

Adding greatly to the overall effect is the highly detailed and character-specific production and costume designs, which more often than not garner laughs on their own, and the striking cinematography, which makes excellent use of a range of previously underused and little-seen upper Manhattan locations. — Frank Scheck, originally published Oct. 5, 2001

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