Writer/director Wes Anderson has a close relationship with the wonderful folks at the Criterion Collection, and now one of his films that previously got the Criterion DVD treatment has finally gotten the Blu-ray upgrade. When The Royal Tenenbaums opened in 2001, it marked Anderson’s first major film as a “known” director. He burst onto the scene with 1996’s Bottle Rocket, but it was Rushmore that really launched his career. As such, The Royal Tenenbaums came with some pretty lofty expectations. Anderson honed the script with his partner Owen Wilson and went about assembling a truly remarkable ensemble cast. The results are kind of a mixed bag of humor, drama, and wit, but the film works more often than it doesn’t.
Hit the jump for my review of The Royal Tenenbaums Criterion Blu-ray.
Tenenbaums was crafted as an adaptation of a book even though the film is an original story, and it tows the line between novelization and feature film throughout. The pic opens with Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) telling his children that he and their mother are getting a divorce, followed by a glorious montage of the Tenenbaum family’s history buoyed by Alec Baldwin’s narration and a cover of “Hey Jude.” The three kids, Chas, Margot, and Richie, were childhood prodigies, with Chas finding success as a math and business genius, the adopted Margot becoming a successful playwright while in the ninth grade, and Richie flourishing as a tennis prodigy and aspiring artist.
The crux of Anderson’s story is that, following the divorce, the childrens’ lives began to deteriorate. In present day, we find that Chas (Ben Stiller), Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Richie (Luke Wilson) are all suffering from significant problems. Chas has become obsessed with safety to a fault following the death of his wife in a plane accident, and he runs fire drills with his two sons and dog in the middle of the night. Margot is unhappily married to neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) and spends most of her time smoking in the bathroom. Richie, following a total meltdown on the tennis court that lead to the end of his athletic career, is now aimlessly traveling the world by boat.
Royal finds out that his ex-wife (though they never officially divorced) Etheline, expertly played by Angelica Huston, is considering marrying her accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). As a result, he decides to tell Etheline that he’s dying of stomach cancer, and thus begins a chain of events that brings all the Tenenbaums back together under one roof.
The humor in the film is spot-on, and Hackman’s performance as a man who’s a selfish asshole but doesn’t really think of himself as a selfish asshole is excellent. His chemistry with Huston is a standout, as is his interaction with Margot, whom he always introduced as his “adopted daughter” and never included in family events. Stiller is a bit over-the-top as the neurotic Chas, but his character arc has a nice conclusion.
The film takes a sharp turn to the dramatic about halfway through that comes rather abruptly, and it has a bit of a tough time bringing back some of the dry humor after such a graphic event. That said, it’s an emotional moment for Richie that forces he and adopted sister Margot to confront their feelings for each other head-on, the ambiguity of which has led to a life of misery for both.
The emotional throghline, though, is the arc of Royal Tenenbaum. It’s refreshing to see that his character doesn’t do a full 180 as a result of the film’s climax, but he instead starts making an effort to change.
Though it was first released over a decade ago, The Royal Tenenbaums doesn’t feel dated. The story is just as relevant now as it was then, and New York City through the eyes of Anderson has never looked better. The Blu-ray transfer is unsurprisingly great (those Criterion folks know what they’re doing), but you won’t find any features on this disc that weren’t already on the Criterion edition of the film’s DVD.
Said special features include an audio commentary by Anderson, a “With the Filmmaker” featurette that plays like a 90s PBS special, interviews with the cast and behind-the-scenes footage, outtakes, The Peter Bradley Show interviews with the cast, trailers, a Studio 360 radio segment on painter Migue Calderon, a fantastic scrapbook featuring young Richies paintings, a collectible insert with some drawings from artist Eric Anderson, and an essay on the film by Kent Jones.