Wes Anderson hit a new aesthetic high point with The Royal Tenenbaums, a film that announced to the world the arrival of a master stylist. Rushmore had already shown Anderson to be a brilliant storyteller and character creator, but with Tenebaums, he moved on to a much larger canvas. The storybook production design is enchanting, with Anderson’s attention to compartmentalized detail creating a wholly immersive world. But character doesn’t get lost inside the impeccably designed frames — sure, the performances are mannered and the characters laden with quirks, but the humanity and heartbreak of each remains palpable.
The Royal Tenenbaums is a testament to director Anderson's strenghth as an actor’s director. This isn’t a skill he gets a lot of credit for, although the incredible child performances in Moonrise Kingdom might change that. But it’s clear with every nuanced, layered turn, from the A-list movie stars on down to the kid who played neurosis-case Dudley, that Anderson evokes something special from his cast.
Gene Hackman, in the last great role he’s had, stars as Royal Tenenbaum, the erstwhile patriarch of an upper crust Manhattan family. Estranged from his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), and three kids — Chas, Margot and Richie (Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson) — Royal decides to force his way back into their good graces by faking a cancer diagnosis and moving back in to the palatial family estate. The plan is met with varying degrees of resistance from the three adult Tenenbaum children, all promising youngsters who never lived up to their potential.
Nonetheless, Royal moves in, and his purported illness becomes a bit of an afterthought in the wake of the emotional tumult. Chas is still grieving the death of his wife from a few months back, the adopted Margot is afflicted with an intense feeling of ennui much to the chagrin of her doctor husband Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) and Richie is pining away for Margot, who he’s loved ever since they were kids. Meanwhile, Etheline is being courted by kindly colleague Henry Sherman and childhood friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) is just generally causing a headache with his drug-fueled obnoxious behavior.