The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Directed by Wes Anderson

While dysfunctional families are not new territory for films (in fact, it’s well worn ground now – the oddity would be a story of a healthy family), director Wes Anderson has given us wonderfully quirky film that manages to avoid falling into the trap of being a cranky, ill-tempered black comedy.

At the same time, it doesn’t become a saccharine story that ends with everyone living happily-ever-after. (It approaches this but it is done without the syrupy quality.)

As Royal Tenenbaum, Gene Hackman gives another fabulous performance as a son-of-a-bitch you have to like.

We can like this kind of character despite their faults because we’re not personally on the receiving end of his failings – basic comedy, laughing at someone else’s misfortune.

Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) raising two of his several children.

However, while we laugh, Anderson doesn’t allow us to get away with it completely. The consequences are made painfully plain in the characters of his screwed up children.

One of my favourite aspects of The Royal Tenenbaums is how it handles exposition. Every story struggles with this problem: how will it lay the necessary groundwork? How will it provide the background information necessary to telling the story without losing the audience’s interest?

Co-writers Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson do this by taking a conventional, novelistic approach. (The movie is divided into chapters, beginning with a prologue.) They literally use a narrator (Gene Hackman, though speaking in the third person) and use the Prologue to lay most of the foundation.

A family discussion. (Luke Wilson as Ritchie, Gwyneth Paltrow as Margot, Ben Stiller as Chas and Gene Hackman as Royal).

The narrator relates the necessary information sequentially, following the family’s timeline, introducing each character, and so on. There is little or no dialogue during this; it’s almost exclusively the narrator’s voice.

For a film, this approach should be death. It is probably the most tedious way to handle exposition. Yet it’s one of the most effective and artful openings I’ve seen in ages. How does Anderson do it?

It’s done through the deft manipulation of basic script and other film elements, including the heart of film, the visual presentation. Anderson holds us with the irony between what is being told by the narrator and what we actually see.

Throughout the film Hackman’s character (Royal) tries to put himself in a better light than he knows he actually deserves.

Everyone has a mood of sedated abdication except patriarch Royal. (Bill Murray in middle as Raleigh St. Clair.)

It begins in the Prologue as he narrates in the third person. He understates and overstates but what we see undermines what he says – we see the truth. His tone is dispassionate as he relates the background; what we see runs against his tone.

The end result is thoroughly comedic.

There is also the pacing – editing, music, performance. All of these elements work to keep the process of exposition moving quickly. A joke is delivered and the movie swiftly moves past. It also helps to firmly establish the character of Royal, a man who survives through the manipulation of truth.

It’s all deftly capped at the end of the film when we see Royal’s final words etched in stone. It is a lie in the literal sense; metaphorically, it is the truth.

Family portrait - the Royal Tenenbaums.

Once again, he has manipulated the telling to put himself in a better light.

As with the best films, The Royal Tenenbaums works because so many of its elements work together and work well. The script is smart and has depth. The direction rises to the level set by the script as do the performances of all the actors.

The end product is a story with wonderful, true characters and one that is genuinely funny without betraying its more serious aspects.

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