Losing My Virginity: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)


[Losing My Virginity articles are reviews written by someone who still hasn’t seen an incredibly popular movie after all these years. LMV reviews are interesting in that they can offer the perspective of a person who’s untainted by the cloud of commonness that surrounded a famous film of the past, and also show how well it has stood the test of time. For more fun from Flixist’s Wes Anderson Week, head over here.]

About halfway through The Royal Tenenbaums, I thought to myself, “When is something going to happen?” A lot was going on, but I didn’t feel like there was a series of events that pushed the story along. And I continued to feel that way throughout the rest of the film.

I was wrong, of course. A lot of things happened. More things in the second half than the first, sure, but there was a very clear progression that the story followed. I could easily list for you all of the things that happened, some of them truly life-changing. Even so, it all felt inconsequential.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

I have spent the last up to 10 years of my life thinking that The Royal Tenenbaums is about a royal family with the surname Tenenbaum. I feel like I’ve been lied to. It’s not about royalty. It’s about a guy named Royal, played by Gene Hackman. How pretentious does a person have to be to name their kid Royal? If he had gone to a public school (and of course, he wouldn’t, because his parents wouldn’t let “their little king” spend time with the plebians), he would have probably been beaten on a daily basis out of the sheer audacity of his parents’ decision.

Fortunately, Royal’s parents are not in the movie. Or if they were I blocked them out. Instead, the rest of his family is there, and by there I mean in a different place than he is, because he hasn’t seen any of them in over seven years. There’s his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), and her accountant, Henry (Danny Glover); his three kids, Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson), and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) (who is adopted), their friend Eli (Owen Wilson), and Margot’s husband, Raleigh (Bill Murray); and his Indian friend-or-something-like-that, Pagoda (Kumar Pallana); among others.

Gene Hackman and Ben Stiller

So there’s a lot going on. Pretty much everybody has problems with at least one other character, and most of them have problems with basically every other character. The movie seems to have been a bit too ambitious, hitting too many different points in too short a run time. An extra half hour would have probably destroyed the pacing of the film, but it would have made some things clearer. The relationships between the cast are kind of difficult to understand. There’s a lot of history and emotion behind them, but it’s hard to figure out what that history is and what emotions they are, especially with regards to Danny Glover’s character. I never really figured out what was up with him.

The thing is, most of the characters have the same motivation: sex. It’s probably a bit reductive to say that, but pretty much all of the relationships boil down to sex. Some characters are sleeping with each other. Other characters want to be sleeping with each other. Other characters don’t want other characters sleeping with each other. There are a couple of exceptions, but even the sibling relationships are, to some extent, sexual.

Owen Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums

Regardless, depending on how you feel about the cast, it’s either a group of superstars or a bunch of has-beens, but I think ten years ago it was probably a more consistently impressive cast. Regardless of what you think of Gwyneth Paltrow or Ben Stiller, though, everything works well. I think the best casting choice was with the two Wilsons. Casting the brothers as best friends going through some rough times was an excellent idea, and that chemistry that they have from growing up together shines through in some of the film’s later scenes. In fact, the moments between the two of them are some of the most powerful in the film. 

Thinking back on it, Luke Wilson took almost all of the most powerful scenes. Richie (whose name, for some reason, I thought was Arthur) has a strange place in the family as being the child closest to Royal, which makes him something of a target for his siblings. I’ve never thought of Luke Wilson as a great actor, but this is definitely the best I’ve seen him. The character arc that Richie undergoes is the most obviously tragic in the film, and Wilson handles some tough material very well. However, what happens to him highlights the tonal issues that run throughout the film.

Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums

The Royal Tenenbaums isn’t really funny. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it feels like it’s supposed to be funny. Every once in a while I laughed really hard, and those moments were amazing. I should have been doing more of that. But I didn’t. Even though I was enjoying myself most of the time, I didn’t really know how to feel. it’s obviously not straight comedy. It’s dramatic. A lot of things go wrong, but most of its kind of harmless. But in the later portion of the film, that’s not as true. Things take a dark turn, and the comedy basically disappeared. It was replaced by straight drama, and I felt kind of apathetic about the whole thing. The imagery was shocking enough to elicit some kind of response (especially those scars), but it seemed out of place.

I think it’s because of the film’s style. There is something about the way Wes Anderson style that is both attractive and repulsive. The sweeping camera motions and vibrant colors are all very pleasant to look at, and they make everything seem hyperrealistic. This can have a beneficial impact, but here it serves more to distance the audience than draw them in. It’s like an absurdist play, like something Margot would’ve written. It’s difficult to connect to, even if what the characters are doing seems real. In the same way that Royal was unable to immerse himself in Margot’s work, I wasn’t able to immerse myself in Anderson’s.

Gene Hackman and Danny Glover in The Royal Tenenbaums

But it’s not just the filmmaker who’s absurd, so are the characters. Take Margot, for example, since she’s probably the strangest of all. Her sordid history is absolutely brilliant, but it’s also ridiculous. Aside from her wooden finger, the most obviously ridiculous thing about her is the smoking habit she has hidden for 22 years, despite the fact that she smokes indoors while other people are around. It’s silly, and silly in a good way, but it’s off-putting given the film’s generally serious one.

Perhaps that’s why I felt like nothing happened. Maybe the distance that Wes Anderson’s style and the film’s characters created kept me from realizing just how much was going on. I was focusing on Margot’s smoking habit while Royal was getting kicked out of his hotel and being forced to live with his family. I thought about the bizarre uniform Chas was always wearing while Henry and Etheline got engaged (or something). The absurdism kept me from putting things together while they were happening. My attention was always in the wrong place, so what seems obvious in retropspect wasn’t so clear at the time.

Luke Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums

But the thing is, I like absurdist plays. I think this has come across as more negative than it should. I am completely okay with worlds that make no sense. I can sit back and enjoy them for what they are. And I was able to do that with The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s a world that is completely foreign. I can’t connect to anybody on any level, but as long as everything is in place for an enjoyable ride there’s nothing wrong with that. The writing is very good, the direction is excellent, cinematography is fantastic. That alienating style makes a movie that is easy to enjoy.

When the credits rolled, I was glad that I had seen The Royal Tenenbaums. Not just because some of my Wes Anderson-fanatic friends will get off my back. Wikipedia tells me that the creator of Arrested Development almost gave up the idea after seeing Tenenbaums, and I can understand why. Tenenbaums is kind of like a dramatically condensed version of Arrested Development with a less-compelling (but nonetheless interesting) cast of characters. Is that a fair comparison, considering Tenenbaums did come first? Maybe not. But there are much, much worse things to be compared to.

More importantly, The Royal Tenenbaums comes out of that comparison favorably.