Five Reasons Why The Royal Tenenbaums is Overrated


[At the end of this week Wes Anderson will release Moonrise Kingdom. That means all this week we’ll be celebrating by diving into his past films with a slew of features on the distinctive director and his films. Head here to see all our coverage during this week of Wes Anderson.]

I watched The Royal Tenenbaums for the first time many, many years ago. My initial reaction to it was discouraging. I remember thinking that it didn’t live up to the outstanding hype swirling around it, but that can be said for anything. Considering that it was my first experience with Wes Anderson, I figured I just didn’t “get” what him. Fast forward to this past week where, after years and a handful of films released since The Royal Tenenbaums, a heightened interest in films, and admitting that Anderson just might be one of my favorite directors, I re-watched The Royal Tenenbaums and still didn’t like it.

Stroll along with me as I pinpoint exactly why I feel it’s overrated.

To go about this, I’ll use a loose, bullet form format. However, while it will visually appear like some sort of list, there is no hierarchy to the points being made, i.e. the first point made isn’t any worse than the last point made. Rather, they’re all equally bad and reasons why The Royal Tenenbaums is vastly overrated. Now that the disclaimer is out of the way…

The Ensemble Cast is Too Big and Distracting

I tend to have a problem with ensemble casts, but the cast in The Royal Tenenbaums is just too big and distracting. Generally speaking, when a cast is full of talented actors, screen time isn’t going to be properly divided amongst all of them; either too much or not enough time will be focused on character arcs that don’t really affect the overall plot. Take, for example, Bill Murray’s role as Margot Tenenbaum’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) husband, Raleigh St. Clair. While he has a minor role/arc in the film and still gets some screen presence, he serves as nothing more than a conflict separating Margot from the others in her life. Considering the working relationship between Murray and Anderson, it fits to have Murray in a role that is minimally above a cameo spot.

The same can be said for another on-the-bubble character, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). While he ultimately plays a larger role than St. Clair, Sherman’s character is used as nothing more than a physical obstacle separating Royal (Gene Hackman) from reconnecting with his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston). Of course, the argument can be made that the focus is on the Tenenbaums themselves and that all the other peripheral characters are underdeveloped BECAUSE of their outside relationship to the family, but with a cast full of talent, it’s hard to ignore the minor characters when you know how much they can deliver to the film.

I Can’t Stand Margot Tenenbaum

Ugh. If I ever see another art school girl dress up as Margot Tenenbaum for Halloween, I’m going to say and do drastic, over-reactionary things. Alec touched on Margot’s character a bit in his LMV, but I’m going to take it to the next level. Margot is a wholly dislikable character. It’s funny, too, because outside of the cheating and incestual feelings, if any “real” girl exhibited any of Margot’s characteristics, I’d probably fall in love with them. However, that’s neither here nor there. Was Margot written to be hated?

I gravitate towards cynical, broken characters in fiction, but Margot just represents too much. She serves as a bit of a female role model to high school girls who feel like they’re outcasts or outsiders looking in. I can appreciate that, but she represents nothing more than a dark, twisted character who shows no true growth. Her one true admission in the entire film is expressing her love for her brother, Richie (Luke Wilson), but then that’s undercut by their legally-ascribed sibling relationship and, more importantly, her decision to keep them as “secretly in love.” What’s more, I’ve only ever found Gwyneth Paltrow attractive as Margot, and that makes me hate myself.

The Detachment between Characters is Aggravating

One of the Anderson-esque elements that I love about his future films is one of the main things I hate about The Royal Tenenbaums: the detachment between characters is too robotic and cynical. Without turning this feature into a full-out analysis, I always felt that the one character who showed real connections with other characters was Richie. Of course, it’s fitting that he’s the one that suffers the most because of this. It’s as if the world in which The Royal Tenenbaums resides punishes those that aren’t hardened and defensive of their true feelings. Again, I’m attracted to “dark” films where cynicism and stoicism are large elements, but it simply doesn’t click in The Royal Tenenbaums, which leads me to my next point.

The Dialogue is Unrealistic

Again, another element I love about future Anderson films that I hated in this one is the unrealistic dialogue. It’s not as apparent and rampant in The Royal Tenenbaums as, say, The Darjeeling Limited, but the moments where Anderson-esque one-liners exist take you out of the film. Take the scene where Royal reunites with his children:

Royal: First thing I want to do is take you out to see your grandmother, at some point.
Richie: I haven’t been out there since I was six.
Margot: I haven’t been out there at all. I was never invited.
Royal: Well, she wasn’t your real grandmother.

It’s funny, yes, and definitely fits the film’s cynical tone, but it’s too brazen. I think one of the biggest reasons why The Royal Tenenbaums is kept somewhat separate from the rest of Anderson’s filmography is because it’s still set in some sort of real world, whereas The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou exist in their own hyperreal universes where such dialogue feels natural to those worlds. In The Royal Tenenbaums, however, it just doesn’t feel natural, as if such one-liners are being forced in order to make a joke rather than being a natural outcome of the scenario.

It’s Too Quirky for Its Own Good

To illustrate my last point, I embedded the amazing God of War Indie Trailer from my good friend, Zane Bauer, and all of her cohorts at Gamervision.com. Wes Anderson has established very specific aesthetics that have become synonymous with his name. I believe the fundamental elements of his signature are his quirky characters and mise en scene. You can easily pinpoint a Wes Anderson film by its use of bright colors, distinct typography, and characters full of weird nuances. However, as I mentioned in the previous bullet point, the combination of all of these elements better fit Anderson’s later films. But in The Royal Tenenbaums, it’s just too much.

From Margot’s missing finger to Chas’ (Ben Stiller) penchant for Adidas tracksuits, the entirety of the film just doesn’t “feel right.” It’s as if by attempting to find his own voice, Anderson shouted and screamed too many things at once, resulting in this haphazard mix of nuances to cater towards those not in the in-crowd. Sure, that’s cool and I can appreciate that, but it all comes off synthetic and forced in The Royal Tenenbaums. Given how his career has played out over the past decade, however, it appears that Anderson was simply testing the waters as, again I reiterate, the rest of his films feel more natural in their otherwise unnatural settings.

To close this off, I understand that it might not be fair to compare The Royal Tenenbaums with later films from Wes Anderson’s career, but it’s hard not to draw comparisons, especially when I believe that The Royal Tenenbaums was the foundation which Anderson built the rest of his filmography from. While I’ll always consider the film to be an exception from an otherwise remarkable career, I still feel that The Royal Tenenbaums serves as the perfect introduction to the world of Wes Anderson.

For the Wes Anderson newbies out there, promise me you’ll never dress up as the Tenenbaum children for Halloween.