There’s a famous Tolstoy quote that says, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And yet, The Royal Tenenbaums seems to disprove that. Wes Anderson’s third (and greatest) film centers on a singularly unique family with what would, on first watch, appear to possess a singularly unique brand of shared unhappiness. But the Tenenbaums somehow evoke in a large swath of viewers an aching, seemingly unique familiarity. And then over time, we’re all shocked to find out that private familiarity was actually sparked in everyone else, too. We all watched and thought, contrary to Tolstoy, Yes, my family is also unhappy just like that.
Of course this happened to me, too. I first saw The Royal Tenenbaums in theaters, over Christmas break of my sophomore year in college, with two friends that I hung out with a lot over those few weeks because we were the only three people who actually remained in our awful college town of Muncie, Indiana—probably the same town where Margot lost her finger—for the entire holiday break. And my enduring memory of the experience is that the three of us were the only people in the theater who ever laughed a single time. (I was laughing the entire time.) Muncie may not have been ready for Wes Anderson, but I very much was. And on the week I turned 20, I found him at the perfect moment.
And yes, something I initially loved about Tenenbaums in 2001 was that it reminded me of my own family in several ways, but I assumed that was a unique reaction. Surely these colorful, damaged weirdos don’t remind anyone else of their own families, I thought. But that was a wrong thought. The emotional greatness of Tenenbaums is actually in its sneaky universality; these esoteric geniuses with their eternal Halloween-party-ready wardrobes somehow screwed up at nurturing and caring for one another in ways that resonate with seemingly everyone.
Those hyper-stylized characters are the key. Visual Arts theorist Scott McCloud discussed this phenomena in his seminal book, Understanding Comics. “When you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another,” he wrote. “But when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself.” In other words, because Homer Simpson looks nothing like any particular slovenly man, he actually looks like all slovenly men.
And so it is with Royal Tenenbaum’s motley crew. They’re cartoons, and that’s why they resonate with us. They’re not a realistic portrait of a family, they’re a cartoon portrait of one. And so we see our own cartoonish families reflected back at us.
Most of Wes Anderson’s films are, in some way or another, about the total failures of families to just not fuck each other up for life, and The Royal Tenenbaums is best in show for that particular through-line. It earns this crown in two primary ways: with Anderson’s most inspired music selections and needle drops, and with Anderson’s best ensemble cast.
Calling The Royal Tenenbaums Wes Anderson’s best cast might seem like a controversial, and even insane statement. Afterall, 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel featured a whopping 11 Oscar nominees, and that number balloons to 15 if you count people nominated for non-acting categories (as Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Fisher Stevens, and Bob Balaban have all been). But how many of those actors had roles of substance? For how many do you even remember what character they played, or how that character mattered to the story? Most of that cast was just (very) beautiful and expensive window dressing.
The eight principal cast members of The Royal Tenenbaums, on the other hand, all had crucial emotional arcs, and all embodied their characters to such an extent that it’s unfathomable they could have ever been played by anyone else. If The Royal Tenenbaums were released today, I guarantee there would be significant lobbying on Twitter for Oscar campaigns for all eight actors. If you think the Lady Gaga and KStew fans are going at it right now, just be happy we never had to witness the sheer brutality of Richie Tenenbaum shippers warring with Eli Cash stans.
I jest (mostly), but the larger point is that Tenenbaums had a true ensemble like no other, and that point was driven home with the film’s original poster. It’s not like there hadn’t been movie posters with the names and faces of eight stars on them before; of course there had. But how many posters displayed those eight people as the entirety of the poster (devoid of any plot or location elements), and they were all given equal size, stature, and prominence? Even the names of the actors are listed in alphabetical order, and so Danny Glover comes first. Contrast that with, for example, the Avengers: Infinity War poster, which prompted then-Vulture writer (and now New York Times Oscar expert) Kyle Buchanan to write a detailed investigation into all the contractual machinations that determined the order the many star names were listed in. Not so with the Tenenbaums clan, who were eight equals through and through.
And then there’s the music. Look, it’s not as though Wes Anderson invented the needle drop. Pre-existing pop records have been augmenting the hell out of movies at least since the opening credits of The Graduate, and just in the few years prior to Tenenbaums, films like Boogie Nights and Almost Famous curated some of the greatest start-to-finish soundtracks in cinematic history. But despite all of that, despite actual facts that tell us, indisputably, that directors had been doing this really well for years, Wes Anderson so perfectly fused pop songs into the emotional, visual, and stylistic core of The Royal Tenenbaums that it genuinely does feel like he’d reinvented the wheel.
Let’s look at three examples (because who cares about word counts, amirite?): Nico’s “These Days,” played when Margot picks Richie up from the pier; The Ramones’ “Judy is a Punk,” played when Margot’s promiscuous past is revealed; and Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay,” played during Richie’s suicide attempt.
Each of these three sequences are unlike anything else in the film, and unlike each other (even though all three follow the same two characters, and directly relate to one another). None of them take place in normal time; the first involves slow-motion, the second is a rapid-fire flashback montage, and the third is defined by jarring jump-cuts. They all seem, somehow, both perfectly conceived just for their particular songs and also like scenes that the film’s narrative as a whole needed exactly as they are.
The “These Days” sequence has an almost Barry Jenkins–like centerpiece shot, a long hold on Margot’s face looking toward the camera. It’s a singular, defining shot in the film, both visually and emotionally. And in that look, Gwyneth Paltrow conveys an absolute sea of unresolved emotion, unrequited (and ungiven) love, unearthed baggage, and uncertain future. Margot’s icy, unknowable demeanor is perfectly paired with Nico’s icy, unknowable voice, but in their pairing, they evoke a vulnerability that neither could conjure on their own.
We eventually find out some of what’s beneath that guarded demeanor in the second sequence, as Margot’s extensive history of secret smokes and gropes flash before our eyes in perfect rhythm (and ethos) with “Judy is a Punk,” a classic track from the Ramones’ first album. It’s an inspired pairing that emphasizes Margot’s autonomy. This was not a history that happened against Margot’s will, but very much due to her own wants and desires. (I’m reminded of a great scene from 1997’s Chasing Amy when Holden asks Alyssa why she let so many men use her, to which she screams back, “I used them!”) And as Raleigh St. Clair and Richie Tenenbaum have this entire history suddenly dumped in their laps, that autonomy, that spirit of exploration, is exactly what wrecks them. This was not a woman uninterested in sex; she just wasn’t interested in having it with either of them.
And so Richie attempts suicide, in an unforgettable sequence soundtracked by Elliott Smith, a brilliant songwriter who unfortunately committed an all-too-successful suicide two years after the film was released. It’s a sequence that looks and feels unlike any other in Anderson’s filmography (at least I think so; sincere apologies that I did not rewatch all of his nine other features while writing this). The whole scene is saturated in the saddest of sad blue tones, and it looks unimaginably far from the whimsical “Accidentally Wes Anderson” visual aesthetic we all know and love. Anderson’s camera, which is usually constantly swiveling and panning in all directions to emphasize the physical juxtapositions of characters in the always-stunning production designs of his films, stays completely still in the entire sequence except for one moment, as Richie slowly sinks to the floor while his veins empty on the tile around him.
But while the camera stays still, the editing does not, with several jump cuts bouncing forward and backward as Richie’s perpetually hidden face (by beard, long hair, headband, and sunglasses) rapidly reveals itself. Unlike with the “Judy is a Punk” sequence, where the music and the editing are in perfect concert, here the editing is in almost violent conflict with the sullen, acoustic song that seems, at first, to merely be soundtracking a bit of impromptu grooming. But by the time Elliott Smith sings “And I don’t want to talk, I’m taking the cure so I can be quiet,” he and Richie and the editing are all on the same, sad page.
In Wes Anderson’s commentary track on the Criterion Collection edition of The Royal Tenenbaums, he reveals that he thinks of Richie as the emotional core of the film. That’s why, in the final scene, as each character walks off screen and exits the movie one by one—in slow motion, to the lovely, elegiac sounds of Van Morrison’s “Everyone”—Richie is the last family member to do so. He’s followed only by Pagoda, Royal Tenenbaum’s ever faithful boy Friday (who both saved him from being stabbed and also did the stabbing), who closes the gate as the film cuts to black.
But for so many of us, The Royal Tenenbaums never really ends. Personally, I find that my memory of exactly how the film concludes is far hazier than my crystal-clear, photographic memory of virtually every other sequence. I had completely forgotten there was even a Van Morrison song used at the end until I rewatched the film to write this piece (whereas I could’ve rattled off the entire rest of the soundtrack, on command, at any time over the last 20 years). It’s almost like my brain won’t let Royal Tenenbaum be dead; I can perfectly recall nearly every word of dialogue in the first 105 minutes of the film, but when it comes to the last two minutes, I’m like the malfunctioning head of the Inside Out girl, and the memories have all gone down the wrong tubes, misplaced in the wrong, inaccessible corners of my subconscious.
I’ve always loved that about the film, that it remains forever unfinished in my mind, just as I’ve always loved that it was effectively Gene Hackman’s farewell to an incredible acting career. (The internet claims he allegedly made two more movies, 2003’s Runaway Jury and 2004’s Welcome to Mooseport, but I think we can all agree those don’t really exist.) And I’m sure a few weeks after I write this, I will once again forget how the film ends, and my brain will continue to abide by the Eli Cash playbook: Well everyone knows Royal Tenenbaum died at the end of the film, but what this memory presupposes is, maybe he didn’t?
The Royal Tenenbaums premiered in limited release on December 14, 2001 from Touchstone and Buena Vista Pictures.