The Royal Tenenbaums

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Criterion Collection
Cast: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Bill Murray, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Interviews, Deleted Scenes, Still Galleries, Trailers

I first encountered the work of Wes Anderson and his cohorts the Wilson brothers (Luke and Owen) back in 1996 with their debut film, "Bottle Rocket." It’s hard to explain exactly what it was about that quirky little movie that captured my interest but the same sense of satisfaction and awe followed my viewing of their follow-up feature, 1998’s "Rushmore." When I heard the first murmurings about their third movie, "The Royal Tenenbaums," I was a bit apprehensive as this was to be a big-budget production packed with A-level Hollywood talent. Could the intimate nature of a typical Wes Anderson/Owen Wilson script survive such an onslaught of egos and cash? Well, fortunately for fans of truly entertaining cinema, the simple answer is yes.

The film opens in 1979. Gene Hackman is Royal Tenenbaum, a real bastard of a father who is only too happy when his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), kicks him out of the house. Their three children soon blossom into child prodigies with Chas becoming a successful financier, Margot — the adopted daughter — an award-winning playwright, and Richie a professional tennis superstar.

Ah, but time is never kind to those who blossom so young. 22 years later finds Chas (Ben Stiller) as a paranoid and angry father of two who recently lost his wife in a plane crash. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is married to the much older Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) and spends her days listlessly in front of the tube. And Richie’s (Luke Wilson) inability to get over his infatuation with his adopted sister leads to the demise of his tennis game and finds him traveling the world alone by ship.

When Royal finds himself destitute and kicked out of his hotel suite he feigns a terminal illness in an attempt to reconcile with his family. With faithful family servant — and onetime assassin — Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), Royal tries to put one over on the family but instead finds himself inexplicably drawn to the life he was only too eager to jettison years ago. Meanwhile, Ethel is engaged to be married to the charming Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) which only makes Royal’s plan that much more difficult.

The children all attempt to come to terms with their long-absent father in their own unique ways while longtime family friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) finds himself caught in a love triangle with his childhood chums Richie and Margot.

This brief synopsis barely even scratches the surface of the often convoluted plot. Add in the many almost subliminal subplots and what you have is a very finely crafted film that is at turns both hilarious and heartbreaking.

Presented in 2.40:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, "The Royal Tenenbaums" arrives on DVD in fine order. The overall image is nice and sharp with only minor edge enhancement visible. Colors are vibrant and for the most part lifelike although a few scenes are intentionally a little hot with more vibrant hues. Black levels are nice and solid as well and the image shows no signs of blemishes or other defects. "The Royal Tenenbaums" follows in the same stylistic vein as Wes Anderson’s other films and this DVD offers up an accurate and pleasing presentation.

Audio comes in an English <$DTS,DTS> <$5.1,5.1 mix> as well as English <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 and 2.0 Surround tracks. The 5.1 soundtracks boast fine dynamic range that only becomes really evident during the many vintage pop songs. Much of the rest of the film is very much dialogue driven but there are some nice surround effects that pop up here and there to liven up the proceedings. This is certainly not an "in your face" mix but the audio is always clear and pleasant sounding.

I couldn’t detect much of a difference between the Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 tracks so either one is a good choice.

Following in the tradition of Criterion’s wonderful DVD release of "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums" also arrives on DVD as a full-blown special edition — this time of the two disc variety (We’re still waiting for a "Bottle Rocket" special edition by the way — hint, hint Columbia TriStar).

Disc One features the film itself as well as a wonderful commentary with director Wes Anderson. It’s a bit of a shame that the film’s stars and other crew members didn’t participate but this is still a very engaging commentary. Full of the requisite technical details, the track is of primary interest for the amount of quirky insider information it provides. Anderson’s films are always full of inside jokes, personal little tributes, and family and friends playing bit parts and it’s nice to have the director there to explain it all.

The bulk of the extras reside on Disc Two. "With the Filmmaker: Portraits by Albert Maysles," is a 26-minute documentary that provides some great behind-the-scenes coverage as well as offering insight into Wes Anderson’s creative process.

The "Interviews" section offers up short bits from most of the primary cast members. A bit light on the details, these interviews are nevertheless entertaining.

"The Peter Bradley Show" is a 14-minute tongue-in-cheek "Charlie Rose" interview show parody that pops up during the film itself both as the vehicle for Eli Cash’s meltdown and as part of Margot’s long and sordid background check. The episode presented here features a number of minor players from Wes Anderson’s films appearing together to discuss their craft. This is the type of oddball extra that is becoming increasingly rare and, while it certainly doesn’t warrant repeated viewings, the bit is fun and fits in well with the style of humor prevalent in Anderson’s films.

"Cut Scenes" features two very brief deleted scenes that seem to have been thrown on the DVD as a bit of an afterthought.

The "Scrapbook" entry offers a series very extensive stills gallery. "Stills" features shots from the film’s wrap party; "Covers" reveals all of the book jackets that appear on-screen throughout the film; "Margot" features the paintings done by Wes’s brother, Eric Anderson that appear in Margot’s room; "Murals" is more of the same for the other Tenenbaums and Eli; "Storyboards" offers up some illustrated script pages; and lastly, "M.C." features a radio show as well as some comments from Wes Anderson about artist Miguel Calderón that play over images of his artwork. Whew!

Rounding out the extras are two theatrical trailers as well as two illustrated booklets — one showcasing Eric Anderson’s production artwork and the other offering an essay on the film by Kent Jones.

"The Royal Tenenbaums" wasn’t quite the knock-out box office success that was hoped for and I’ll sheepishly admit that I’m more than a little pleased that Wes Anderson will, for the time being at least, remain a filmmaker of middle stature in the eyes of Hollywood. If he and Owen Wilson can keep on making their excellent brand of films for the foreseeable future then I’ll rest easy knowing that there will always be something worthwhile to see at the cinema.

All of Anderson’s films are ostensibly comedies but, even though they certainly contain their fair share of laugh out loud scenes, the real key to their success is the dramatic interplay between fully fleshed out and realized characters. The viewer gets to know the people in these movies on such an intimate level that the humor becomes much more natural and believable. Things that wouldn’t be nearly as funny if they happened to a complete stranger are as hilarious as if they had happened to your klutzy uncle at a family reunion.

"The Royal Tenenbaums" continues this tradition and even the all-star cast can’t overwhelm the beautifully written script. This screwed up family very quickly becomes an extension of our own and, while their circumstances are certainly a bit on the odd side, we can easily relate to the on-screen relationships.

Presented in a fine, two-disc special edition DVD from the folks at the Criterion Collection and Buena Vista, "The Royal Tenenbaums" comes very highly recommended. Just be sure to check out "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore" as well to get a full taste of the Wes Anderson/Owen Wilson creative machine in action.