The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

If you were a lit major at any time, or just love literature, you are probably aware that the 20th century legend J.D. Salinger wrote more than just Catcher in the Rye. I sort of stumbled upon his other writing because, like just about everyone in my generation, I read Catcher in the Rye and related to it. I then resolved to read everything else Salinger had ever written.

It wasn't that good a decision.

Most of what he wrote was about a dysfunctional family of Jewish/Irish urban geniuses, the Glasses, whose lives bear no resemblance to anything on the planet earth. These stories are contrived and insubstantial twaddle. The humor is basically New Yorker Magazine insider humor, the kind of stuff that makes pink-clad girls named Muffy and stout good fellows named Biff twitter politely in recognition of finely tuned irony. Not only did I find Salinger's other works disappointing, but it has always been a complete mystery to me that the author of this bullshit could have written Catcher in the Rye. Salinger took the material much too seriously, which made it all just too precious, but there was a core of good material there if anyone had taken the time to see the real potential for humor in a family of child geniuses grown into neurotic, eccentric, and unsatisfied adults. That's essentially what Wes Anderson has done with the Royal Tenenbaums, his own family of Jewish/Irish prodigies.

This film was created by people with tremendous talent - talent at a level not at all short of genius. It is one of the most aesthetically consistent films I've ever seen. The set and costume designs are outstanding, especially in the attention to the tiny details of the Tenenbaum's lives. The photography is lush, and the DVD transfer may be the best I've ever seen. The script can be witty, sad, clever, and even laugh-out-loud funny. There's only one thing about the film which may scare you away. It is a good comedy, but it may not be your kind of comedy. Ask yourself how much time you would like to spend with neurotic, self-obsessed rich geniuses, even when they are being ridiculed? Do you like the characters of P.G. Wodehouse or Edward Gorey, or Salinger's Glass family? Can you relate to John Irving's novels or the cartoons in The New Yorker? If so, the humor here will be right up your alley - you'll see refined, soft-spoken, well-educated, dysfunctional intellectuals exchanging lifeless, passionless, clever words masked in gentle tones, but hiding condescension, contempt, and altogether too much self-loathing. Obviously, some people found the film impossible to relate to. Other types of filmgoers adored the film, and just couldn't get enough of these characters. The split of opinions was reflected in the scores from the major print reviewers in the UK, who assigned every score from 10/10 to 4/10. I can see why some critics were unenthusiastic. I found most members of the Tenenbaum circle, like Salinger's Glass family, to be interesting companions for a time because of their eccentricity, but I also found them tiresome before they had taken their leave.

Except for ol' Royal Tenenbaum himself, the family patriarch. I never got tired of him, or of Gene Hackman's brilliant portrayal.

The Royal character is so engaging that it won me over into this film's camp and got me through the slow parts. Royal is really nothing more than a refined slacker and scoundrel. He can't even remember the last time he told the truth, and he lies so much that even he doesn't always know which of his pretenses contain a germ of truth. Tossed out by his wife for infidelities and his general lack of integrity, he lives in a hotel room for many years, totally ignoring his family until he hears that his wife wants to divorce and remarry. He then concocts a series of preposterous schemes to get back into his family's good graces, including hiring his hotel's bellhop to impersonate a doctor in order to certify a phony cancer diagnosis. His children, knowing him well enough, are suspicious of his sincerity, especially given that his case of stomach cancer (six weeks to live) is accompanied by his inexplicable ability to wolf down three double cheeseburgers with the works.

The film is basically about Royal's bumbling attempts to make up for all the years of neglecting his family. Given his obvious lies and his total lack of social skills, virtually every one of his schemes backfires, and therein lies the humor. And yet he does attain some measure of success. His eventual growth as a person is bittersweet, and it is limited, but he does make progress, and he tries so hard that we find ourselves rooting for him even though we know him to be a complete lowlife. After Royal confesses that everyone thinks he's an asshole, his wife's suitor says "I never thought you were an asshole, just a callous sonofabitch." Royal responds with a sincere thank you! That's about as close as anyone has ever come to saying something nice about him.

It's that kind of film.


DVD info from Amazon

• Commentary by director Wes Anderson
• New widescreen, anamorphic digital transfer (2.40), supervised by director Wes Anderson
With the Filmmaker: Portraits by Albert Maysles, featuring Wes Anderson
• Exclusive video interviews and behind-the-scenes footage of Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, and Danny Glover
• Two deleted scenes
The Art of the Movie: Young Richie's murals and paintings, still photographs by set photographer James Hamilton, book and magazine covers, Studio 360 radio segment on painter Miguel Calderón, and storyboards
• Collectible insert including Eric Anderson's drawings


  • Tatiana Abbey is topless in a lesbian love scene with Gwyneth Paltrow
  • Paltrow pokes through some outfits, but nothing is visible through the fabric.
  • An actress playing the part of Cinnamon did a full frontal scene which was deleted.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4, 5/5

  • General UK consensus: between two and a half and three stars. Daily Mail 4/10, Daily Telegraph 7/10, Independent 6/10, The Guardian 8/10, The Observer 6/10, The Times 6/10, Evening Standard 4/10, The Sun 6/10, The Express 8/10, The Mirror 10/10, BBC 10/10

  • It was nominated for the Oscar for the best original screenplay

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 7.6/10. It once was in the all-time Top 250.
  • Box Office Mojo: a solid winner in the USA. Made for $21 million, it grossed $52 million despite never reaching as many as 1000 screens. (It had a phenomenal opening weekend with five million on only 291 screens! Its $17,000 per screen almost doubled The Fellowship of the Rings)

Miscellaneous ...


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B-. It is more than a genre film, because it appealed both to critics and mainstream audiences. The reviews were very good, but not unanimously enthusiastic. The box office achieved a similar level - it was not a blockbuster, but did very well for a film which never reached 1000 theaters, especially on its opening weekend.

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