News

The Royal Tenenbaums at 20: How Wes Anderson’s Big Swing Made Him a Household Name

We look back at the singular director's third film, which reinforced or established many of the now instantly recognizable signature elements of his filmmaking style.

by | December 14, 2021 | Comments

Walking out of a screening of The Royal Tenenbaums on opening night (which, remarkably, was two decades ago today, December 14, a humbling thought), a friend turned to me and said, “Well, that was a lot.” He was right: The movie was a lot. Unlike Wes Anderson’s previous features, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, it had tons of star power, with performances by Gwyneth Paltrow, Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Danny Glover, and returning Anderson player Bill Murray. It had a sizable budget, more than twice that of Rushmore’s, and it showed, with almost 250 locations — many of them packed with dazzling details, the kind that would become an increasing obsession for the director in subsequent films, and some of them lasting only a second of screen time. Each character had a laundry list of idiosyncrasies; in the case of Stiller’s Chas Tenenbaum and his two kids Ari and Uzi, for example, it was that they only wore matching red track suits. And the film covered a lot, story-wise and dramatically, unfolding as a comedy but tackling heavy issues like suicide, death, divorce, addiction, and infidelity, and cramming all of that into a tidy 93-minute runtime.

Tenenbaums, which follows an estranged father (Hackman) trying to win back his wife (Huston) and his grown-up child-prodigy offspring (Stiller’s financial guru Chas, Paltrow’s playwright Margot, and Luke Wilson’s tennis phenom Richie), marked an arrival of sorts for Anderson. Rushmore was rightfully adored by many critics and earned accolades like Murray’s Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but watching that movie felt like catching a killer band at a club just before they make it big. Tenenbaums was Anderson making it big, a movie bursting with ideas and visual pizazz that catapulted him from “who?” status to something of a brand. To date, it’s bested at the box office only by 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and it earned Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay. It seemed to take hold of the culture more than any of his other movies, too, if the reemergence of couples dressed as Richie and Margot every Halloween are any indication. Here are five reasons we can’t stop going back to it:


It was the last film Anderson co-wrote with Owen Wilson

Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson in 2002

(Photo by Franziska Krug/Getty Images)

Fans often split up Anderson’s work into two categories: those written with and without Wilson — that is Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, and then everything that followed. That’s a tad reductive, of course — there are many shades to Anderson’s work, and he has evolved a lot as a filmmaker over the last 20 years — but it is true that those first three movies have a particular spirit and point of view. For one, each is centered on pretenders — a fired landscaper pretending to be a master thief in Bottle Rocket, a failing high schooler pretending that his safety school is Harvard in Rushmore, and a broke father pretending he’s dying in The Royal Tenenbaums. What’s more, each lead has a rebellious streak, is something of an outsider, says absurd things, and has money issues. Yet despite their selfish, occasionally awful behavior, we can’t help but pull for them to find some bit of happiness. Maybe Royal put it most succinctly, talking to his daughter Margot at a posh ice-cream shop: “Can’t somebody be a s–t their whole life and try to repair the damage? I mean, I think people want to hear that.”


Anderson refined and expanded his bag of tricks

Irene Gorovaia as young Margot Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums

(Photo by Buena Vista Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Just about every one of Anderson’s signatures up to this point are heightened in Tenenbaums. Take the scene where Margot steps off the bus to meet Richie, as the world becomes quiet for a beat, then the fingerpicking guitar of Nico’s “These Days” plays. The director had already helmed a few memorable center-framed slow-motion shots. (Part of the revenge sequence in Rushmore springs to mind.) But nothing as stunning as this. Similarly, other past moves (needle-drops, montages, title cards, consistent color palettes) are played up for maximum effect throughout the movie, as if Anderson is Nigel Tufnel turning his amp to 11. He threw out some newbies, too, like a particularly impressive single-take crane shot covering the aftermath of Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) crashing into the Tenenbaums’ house.


The performances somehow ring true

The cast of The Royal Tenenbaums

(Photo by Everett Collection)

It’s no small feat that, in spite of all the characters’ many quirks and Anderson’s aesthetic showiness, the turns by this cast still feel authentic and land when they need to. The titular role was written for Hackman, and you can tell: If this is anyone’s show, it’s his, and whether he’s barking antiquated phrases or feigning gentleness, he nails it. It’s worth singling out Stiller as well for his delivery of the line “I’ve had a rough year, Dad” in that aforementioned crane shot. It’s genuinely affecting, the film’s most moving moment.


It’s a love letter to NYC (though not technically set there)

Shooting on location for The Royal Tenenbaums

(Photo by Everett Collection)

What film would intentionally block the Statue of Liberty from a shot? This one. It happens in a scene in which Royal is talking to his longtime pal and onetime assassin Pagoda (a great Kumar Pallana) in Battery Park, who had to be positioned just right to obstruct the iconic attraction. Anderson & Co. went to great lengths to hide any New York identifiers, going so far as to change street signs. Tenenbaums takes place, then, in a sort of graffiti-covered, Gotham-inspired Wes World, filled with Gypsey Cabs, Green Line Buses, Little Tokyo, the Irvine Isle Ferry, the Lindbergh Palace Hotel, and the 375th Street Y.


It might have the director’s most memorable needle drops

Luke Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums

(Photo by Buena Vista Pictures)

Speaking of New York, songs by acts from the five boroughs pop up throughout, including the Ramones (“Judy Is a Punk”), the Velvet Underground (“Stephanie Says”), Paul Simon (“Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”) and, once again, Nico (“The Fairest of the Seasons”), who was apparently an inspiration for Margot’s look. The film is filled with some indelible soundtrack placements, but none leave a mark quite like Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay,” a haunting left turn that plays over Richie’s suicide attempt.


The Royal Tenenbaums was released on December 14, 2001.

On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.

Tag Cloud

21st Century Fox TCM zombies new zealand leaderboard superhero comics nature french Sony Pictures Marvel Television YouTube Red Rocky comic book movies Cartoon Network 2016 hollywood Winter TV revenge rotten movies we love latino Classic Film Red Carpet Adult Swim 72 Emmy Awards trailers Best Actress indie Paramount Network FX on Hulu The Purge italian Mary poppins Teen Sci-Fi Country MTV political drama slasher suspense 20th Century Fox international President video on demand Premiere Dates WGN foreign breaking bad USA Network halloween Action die hard police drama justice league YouTube Premium zombie cooking Lucasfilm Super Bowl vs. discovery Acorn TV Creative Arts Emmys Dark Horse Comics lord of the rings independent Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Epix Watching Series razzies Prime Video Sundance TV Tomatazos canceled TV shows basketball Schedule Hulu batman Black History Month dogs live event renewed TV shows Infographic biopic spider-verse spider-man USA Animation LGBT Masterpiece composers casting free movies Brie Larson politics Calendar rotten 45 movie spanish Set visit documentaries Quiz Tags: Comedy VOD toy story saw Mudbound Valentine's Day 1990s scary diversity action-comedy RT History X-Men Ghostbusters what to watch First Reviews 73rd Emmy Awards spanish language marvel comics parents DC streaming service Tarantino south america rt archives cars supernatural jurassic park book adaptation San Diego Comic-Con serial killer IMDb TV werewolf Trailer witnail SXSW PBS target Broadway Fox Searchlight TCA 2017 Spike Tubi Bravo BBC America directors reboot Hallmark Christmas movies 007 The Academy Hallmark criterion Best Director historical drama sports rom-coms PaleyFest Opinion Discovery Channel comedies TIFF NBC unscripted know your critic Shudder Paramount crime drama Columbia Pictures elevated horror crime thriller AMC Logo mission: impossible BET joker TV Land Sundance TV Mary Tyler Moore monster movies japan movies doctor who quibi Nat Geo Nominations Marvel Studios mob Television Critics Association blaxploitation golden globe awards American Society of Cinematographers BET Awards Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Reality Competition Spring TV versus films festival TNT Polls and Games cinemax 2021 all-time MGM Shondaland Family slashers Film Syfy Holidays DC Universe A&E pirates of the caribbean medical drama Reality cancelled legend comic book movie cops Tokyo Olympics disaster Drama BBC One miniseries ITV romantic comedy BBC Esquire satire game of thrones Pacific Islander MCU IFC Films Travel Channel Emmys sag awards Rock Video Games tv talk Trivia See It Skip It The Arrangement ABC football AMC Plus TBS Mary Poppins Returns adenture Pride Month festivals Toys Arrowverse Comedy deadpool Wes Anderson 94th Oscars dreamworks Disney Image Comics Cosplay laika technology TruTV boxing streaming movies HBO Go kaiju APB Film Festival teaser 99% dexter mutant comic books Women's History Month aapi scene in color black nfl spain Best Picture travel cats green book romance Lifetime Pixar VH1 comiccon Cannes summer preview genre CMT YA Rocketman live action new york Year in Review Extras halloween tv TCA Awards Pop TV OneApp Marathons chucky prank singing competition ABC Signature Kids & Family New York Comic Con Grammys Neflix Amazon Prime Video godzilla Lionsgate Hear Us Out Food Network kong Stephen King theme song Comics on TV summer TV feel good japanese Exclusive Video Warner Bros. based on movie Comic-Con@Home 2021 Marvel docudrama Pet Sematary crime A24 OWN sequel Avengers video 2019 Oscars Pirates Character Guide art house Spectrum Originals Captain marvel Ellie Kemper VICE comic fast and furious crossover screenings Writers Guild of America Star Wars Endgame Netflix natural history Photos heist movie rt labs fresh HBO Amazon Studios Summer indiana jones harry potter BAFTA toronto CBS All Access critic resources dceu 93rd Oscars RT21 2018 ABC Family worst LGBTQ name the review Best and Worst gangster cults nbcuniversal king kong richard e. Grant venice game show book Chernobyl transformers 4/20 Trophy Talk Interview Sneak Peek 2015 NBA binge Baby Yoda summer TV preview talk show Vudu ID 2020 space Awards olympics strong female leads zero dark thirty popular Pop TV movies spinoff Ovation Anna Paquin best Christmas blockbusters PlayStation adventure docuseries DirecTV Biopics ratings psycho The Walt Disney Company 90s Fantasy Horror obi wan Martial Arts psychological thriller classics twilight El Rey wonder woman concert vampires blockbuster Television Academy Superheroe Box Office GIFs universal monsters Netflix Christmas movies Fall TV Fargo E! true crime Disney+ Disney Plus Oscar CW Seed anime social media war IFC women young adult remakes The CW Apple TV+ news Countdown obituary Disney Channel TV One DGA Crunchyroll high school HBO Max WarnerMedia GoT dc Musical Emmy Nominations Holiday sequels emmy awards The Witch National Geographic Freeform facebook Peacock franchise jamie lee curtis Turner Classic Movies archives Thanksgiving NYCC series MSNBC debate 24 frames Star Trek black comedy 71st Emmy Awards CNN TCA FXX SDCC First Look stoner streamig Mystery a nightmare on elm street TV renewals Walt Disney Pictures cancelled TV shows Alien History children's TV worst movies trophy mcc dramedy posters television stand-up comedy scary movies golden globes Instagram Live Rom-Com cancelled TV series Britbox critics FOX TLC Podcast kids SXSW 2022 hist Tumblr Starz cancelled television Best Actor period drama screen actors guild james bond Amazon child's play adaptation DC Comics spy thriller stop motion 2017 christmas movies scorecard hispanic heritage month robots science fiction Certified Fresh Nickelodeon Winners Comic Book Hollywood Foreign Press Association ViacomCBS Comedy Central Western Awards Tour Academy Awards aliens GLAAD Disney Plus marvel cinematic universe South by Southwest Film Festival Binge Guide dragons ESPN YouTube documentary ghosts Superheroes superman royal family Amazon Prime streaming Disney streaming service Funimation asian-american new star wars movies Universal sitcom cartoon Lifetime Christmas movies E3 Apple TV Plus hidden camera reviews australia SundanceTV Showtime FX Turner Song of Ice and Fire award winner animated Sundance Now Apple sopranos HFPA Mindy Kaling king arthur mockumentary biography 79th Golden Globes Awards anthology Music dark CBS Paramount Plus The Walking Dead Elton John Heroines Universal Pictures Crackle thriller Musicals TCA Winter 2020 canceled finale rt labs critics edition boxoffice Election Fox News telelvision Black Mirror Legendary 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards hispanic