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The Royal Tenenbaums

April 12, 2014

The Royal Tenenbaums (2002)
Director: Wes Anderson
Actors: Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson

Synopsis: The estranged patriarch, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), of a legendary New York clan fakes a fatal illness to insinuate himself back into the family unit. At the same time, the three grown-up Tenenbaum children find themselves descending on the family home once more, seeking solace from their respective troubles….

Review: Easily one of the best American pictures of the new millenium, The Royal Tenenbaums stands as apotheosis of the Wes Anderson brand – where all his constituent elements from a narrative imbued in deep pathos, and his hallmark visual delectations, to a quite exquisite sense of humour, are at their best.

Re-acquainting myself with the film after a number of years, what really stands out is how rich the story’s technical canvas and narrative textures actually are. There literally isn’t a shot or line of dialogue without some finer level of detail – and these touches aren’t mere window-dressing but Anderson is a great storyteller and really knows how to out each character’s sly trajectory so acutely (and he does a great job in making tangible the inner-lives of such a motley array of personnel.)

In other Anderson pictures, he hasn’t always justified his proclivity toward nostalgic and sentimental themes but his conception of a legendary New York family fallen on hard times is spot on and, as I mentioned in a previous article (, he finds an ingenious, cinematographic way of honouring that sense of poignancy with a remarkable tracking shot near the film’s close that subtly outs the undertow of sadness that has beset the characters through the course of the narrative.

One or two commentators have chastised Anderson throughout his career for his reliance on ‘cool’ soundtracks but it’s at its most permissible in The Royal Tenenbaums. After all, one of pop music’s great legacies is as sensory artefact, and being a film so doused in nostalgia and the feeling of the past as a paradise lost, the songs really compliment that ethos and the accompanying images. My only slight quibble is perhaps a marginal condescension towards Danny Glover’s character, Henry Sherman, and how Royal’s outward (and more insidious) racial remarks seem to go without reproach – the film valorises him as a loveable rascal – but that aside, this is a true cinematic gem. (April 2014)

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