Character and Humor in The Royal Tenenbaums

I found The Royal Tenenbaums by accident in 2003. At the time, I was working my way through college and employed at a local pawn shop. Actually, that’s how I found the movie. It was sitting on our DVD rack for sale, and all I really knew about it was that Bill Murray was one of the leading men. I’d enjoyed a lot of his movies so I thought, why not give this a try?

The truth is, I watched The Royal Tenenbaums at a pretty critical moment of my life. I was halfway through college, right when I was transitioning into manhood. My tastes were expanding, and I was becoming more interested in new movies, new music, and new parts of life. I’d never watched a film like Royal Tenenbaums, but now I put it alongside The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou as among one of my favorite films of all time. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’d argue that, behind it’s drab and dry humor, it had some of the most memorable characters in cinema history.

It helps that the setup for the film is interesting from the start. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), have three children. Chas Tenenbaum and Richie Tenenbaum are their biological sons, while Margot Tenenbaum is their adopted daughter. All three children are semi-geniuses of one sort or another, but they’re each held back by their father, whose selfishness and greed wreaks havoc on the family, to the degree that he and his wife separate. The film takes place years after this setup, with the Tenenbaum children as adults and each suffering from their own psychological issues.

The Royal Tenenbaums as Children
The Royal Tenenbaums as Children.

To begin, Wes Anderson deploys humor in a very specific manner for the film. It’s deadpan, dry, and spoken as without an attempt to be humorous – in fact, the ironic juxtaposition of the humor of the line against the deadpan delivery heightens the humor of the film itself. Even the situations the Tenenbaums find themselves can be, within reason, outrageous in comparison to the reserved presentation of the characters themselves. Dry, straightforward references that one character is abusing the drug mescaline passes between characters as easily as a request for a drink from the refrigerator.One character’s astonishment in response to the claim is so downplayed, in any other film you would claim the line is delivered badly. Here, it’s purposeful, as if the entire film carries shades of reality behind a sense of repression, repression in the lines delivered that mimics the family’s repression of its own household issues.

Other people would argue that this is Anderson’s way of setting the film’s tone – I prefer to call it his characterization of the film. Every part of the movie is designed to create this sense that the movie and its characters are suppressing the feelings behind their reality. There’s something to be said for how this mirrors the suppression of emotional expression in a number of households and how that damages relationships.

With that as the overall tone, how do the characters distinguish themselves? Let’s start with Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), whom I consider to be the most heartbreaking member of the film. In the introduction, Anderson’s narrator, voiced by Alec Baldwin, tells the audience that Margot’s father constantly reminded friends that his daughter was adopted. In other films, this would be a cardinal sin – you show, don’t tell, these details and particularly not out loud. Here, it’s deployed purposefully, and is touched on again and again throughout the film. Margot is framed in-scene distantly in the background or at least cut off from the group. Her smoking distinguishes her from every other character as well, and she even tells her nephews that she was adopted as a way of distancing herself from them. The overt reminders are key, because they become central to her characterization – her father took time to point out she was adopted, the film takes time to tell us she was adopted, and now she reminds everyone she was adopted.

In this scene, Margot Tenenbaum is literally curtained off from the rest of her family.
In this scene, Margot Tenenbaum is literally curtained off from the rest of her family.

Her adoptive brother Richie (Luke Wilson), on the other hand, plays the favorite of the family. Always provided the attention of their father, he seems more well-rounded than his siblings. However, here is where the tone of the film interacts with the characterization. A lot of this film revolves around suppression – suppressing truths and suppressing feelings. The film’s tone comes to a head in Richie’s character, who is in love with his adoptive sister. Of course, they’re still siblings even if not by blood, so he keeps it secret. When she marries Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), a psychiatric doctor, it finally breaks Richie. Years of suppressing the truth manifest with him having a meltdown while playing during a televised tennis game.

Richie Tenenbaum
He’s taken off his shoes and one of his socks . . . Actually, I think he’s crying.

Similar themes of suppression follow Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller), whose resentment toward his brother Richie (as daddy’s favorite) have produced an adult man with eternal resentment. He argues with Royal Tenenbaum at almost every interaction, barely repressing what he wants to say. Chas is constantly depicted as a neurotic bomb ready to explode. Every interaction portrays him appearing stressed, aggressive, and always just hinting at more inflammatory things he wants to say. He never does, because the family’s suppressed. However, he’s not only holding back from screaming at Royal – the death of his wife has left him nearly broken.

The concluding moments of the film is, in action, what happens when things go suppressed too long. Even though the family has started to resolve its issues, a car crash and ensuing fight are almost like the film acknowledging the suppression and saying, “This is what happens when you bottle up things.” The Royal Tenenbaums carefully chooses how to set tone and match its characters’ own neurosis to it, creating a memorable film, excellent characters, and an experience that everyone should indulge.

If you like this article, remember to like and share it.

Jason Luthor is the author of the science fiction and dystopian horror, FLOOR 21.

One thought on “Character and Humor in The Royal Tenenbaums

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