Film review – The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

The Royal Tenenbaums is independent director Wes Anderson’s (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore) finest work yet, with its finely tuned humour and complex characterisations that the audience can feel real empathy for. The all-star cast are uniformly excellent, in particular Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and surprisingly Gwyneth Paltrow, who play the Tenenbaum siblings. Once all over-achievers they are now all in their 30s with many demons to face. Gene Hackman is a standout as the absent father whose attempts of reconciliation with his family are constantly ruined by his intrinsic selfishness.

Although The Royal Tenenbaums concerns the reuniting of an extremely dysfunctional family, it is incredibly funny and sensitively directed, never stooping to cheap laughs or over sentimentality. The strangely stylised cinematography actually brings the audience closer to the characters rather than distancing them. The steady symmetrical wide shots force you to look directly into the eyes of the characters, enabling you to share their pain.

The real charm of The Royal Tenenbaums is that it is not a black comedy, rather a sad comedy. It is genuinely moving because every character is likeable despite their multiple flaws. The Royal Tenenbaums is both a hilarious observation on the awful situations that people get themselves into, and a celebration of the way families and friends help one another when all seems lost.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 147, 2002

© Thomas Caldwell, 2002