A famous writer (Tolstoy) once claimed that happy families were all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This may be true, but it also seems like each unhappy family in a Wes Anderson film has at least a few similarities, such as the children all being precocious and their parents loving them, but not always having the healthiest way of showing it. This is true of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which features what might qualify as a dysfunctional family. When this came out, I assumed the clan’s surname was symbolic and had something to do with fir trees because “Oh Tenenbaum,” is “Oh Christmas Tree” in German (or at least it was in my piano book as a kid). But no. Tenenbaum was just chosen because the director liked the name. “Royal” is the name of the patriarch (Gene Hackman), and as the viewer quickly learns from the narrator (Alec Baldwin), he is not exactly a candidate for Father of the Year.
The Tenenbaums consist of Royal, his wife (Anjelica Huston), and their three children, who grow up to be Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson. As children, they displayed a gift for financial analysis, playwriting, and tennis respectively, but as adults, they seem stuck – both in their relationships and in their pursuits. Also part of the plot is their neighbor and friend, who grows up to be a novelist, played by Owen Wilson and still retains his hero worship of the family even as he becomes famous himself. Since Gene moved out when the kids were growing up, Anjelica has dedicated her life to nurturing them, but now she’s starting to look for a life of her own – which may mean a romance with her financial analyst, played by Danny Glover. This does not sit well with Gene, who suddenly decides that he wants to be closer to his family. The problem is, however, that since his sins range from stealing young Ben’s savings to regularly reminding Gwyneth that she’s adopted. no one is especially eager to reciprocate.
His children aren’t thrilled to have their absent dad reappear because they’re dealing with issues of their own: Ben has lost his wife and now behaves like Captain Von Trapp to his two young sons; Gwyneth is trapped in an unfulfilling marriage with psychiatrist Bill Murray; and Luke is having meltdowns on the tennis court. Owen is now an alcoholic, and still carries the torch for Gwyneth. All these problems will come to a head after Gene claims he has cancer and moves back into the house. He does have success in connecting with his two grandsons, starting with the line, “I was thinking about grabbing some burgers, then hitting the cemetery,” and initiating them into a series of antisocial behaviors montage-style. By the end, there is a reconciliation of sorts, but it will take a suicide attempt, an accident, a dead dog and some acknowledging of uncomfortable truths to get there.
The story takes place in New York, but it’s not exactly a modern-day NY, like the characters, it seems to be stuck in an old-fashioned time warp. Each character has a secret, though how meaningful it ultimately is varies. Some have to face up to their problems; others have to realize that they aren’t that significant in the first place. By the end of the movie, this unhappy family is a little less unhappy and a little more on the way to something – perhaps happiness, perhaps just plain acceptance of each other’s flaws, which then may give them the confidence to do something of real significance – or perhaps not.