Is The Royal Tenenbaums the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I had a friend in school who used to quote Wes Anderson movies all the time. “There are no teams,” he would tell me often, echoing a small, but important, joke from The Royal Tenenbaums. I was going to call Wes Anderson “divisive,” but that isn’t exactly it. It’s more that if he works for you, he really works for you. From the visual style to the vocal patterns, Anderson’s films are nothing if not specific. That specificity lends to a “universe” that people really connect with (or don’t).

My friends Mike and Eliza suggested this (and a few other movies) and I rewatched The Royal Tenenbaums for this review. I’ve seen it a handful of times and I count myself among the people still charmed by Anderson’s cutesy world. They don’t all work for me. I had a hard time sinking my teeth into The Darjeeling Limited and I only like, but don’t love, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which seems to be a full-on crime. I think Moonrise Kingdom is his best, but Tenenbaums was the first one that really clicked with me, so it’ll always be special.

This should be terrible. On premise alone, a dysfunctional family modeled after J.D. Salinger’s Glass family is a frustrating space to spend time. Adding “rich” and “aloof” as primary descriptors for the cast does not improve things. Mix in Anderson’s aesthetic and Gene Hackman as our primary character, a deadbeat absentee father who lies to get back into his family, and really, ugh. Did I mention it’s all supposedly part of a novel that Alec Baldwin reads to you periodically, in the style of Franny and Zooey?

It’s amazing that it works, but it’s even more amazing the degree to which it works. The cast is outstanding, obviously, but I couldn’t isolate anyone who doesn’t nail what they’re given. Every role has a “thing” to it, which Baldwin narrates as a way of introducing the character. This could feel contrived, as we’re told that Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot has been smoking since she was 12 and acts out to try to get noticed and has soured as a result of that failing or Ben Stiller’s Chas is a recent widow who has become obsessed with safety but was always high-strung, but they feel fully realized immediately. The narration is constant but never feels tacked on or distracting. This alone is a feat.

Mitchell Hurwitz saw the comparisons to his idea for Arrested Development when he saw Tenenbaums. On this rewatch I was surprised by how much of Michael, the central figure in Hurwitz’s ensemble comedy, is in Chas. Tenenbaums is a comedy, sorta, but really modern ensemble comedy owes a lot to the way that Anderson is able to show us terrible people and make us care about something beyond punishment or redemption. I’d seen the movie many times but still, this time, I found myself interested in every arc and hoping for developments, good or bad. There are a dozen or so people in the extended family structure and nearly all of them are memorable and fascinating. Another feat.

Anderson is well known for his soundtracks and Tenenbaums may be the centerpiece of his career. The playful “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” kicks up as Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum picks his up grandkids to raise some hell. The somber “Needle in the Hay” plays during the film’s most shocking and upsetting climax. There are between two and fifty-five Nico songs, especially towards the end. This isn’t a viable criticism, but this effect has diminishing returns on rewatches. Nico is great, but I felt like every new scene found a new 45-second clip at an unnecessary pace towards the end. There’s no room to breathe, which I may only be noticing because of how many movies with longer, wandering paces I’ve seen recently.

This is not a scientific study, but if I had to guess, this is the most common answer people I’ve met have given for their favorite movie of all time. That alone is pretty remarkable, isn’t it? It’s only reflective of one person’s experience, which is in turn only reflective of one culture’s experience, but it’s still something. Most of the negative reviews don’t feel like Anderson nailed making his characters sympathetic or they hated how precious it was. Where’s the disconnect?

The first criticism first: Who says this is supposed to be sympathetic? Margot, the adopted Tenenbaum daughter, cheats on her miserable husband Raleigh St. Clair. You can read this as terrible behavior and feel for St. Clair or you can observe that he’s distant and doesn’t really understand her and infer that it probably never was a successful match in the first place. Margot is treated harshly by her father, even by his standards, and acts out. St. Clair tries to connect, but meekly and robotically. There are a dozen judgements to make, all correct. Probably most people feel like Margot is wrong here, but there’s no real attempt made to sell us on anyone being “good” short of Danny Glover’s character. Most everyone else is letting everyone down, in big or small ways.

The second: too cute? Anderson is the definition of A Lot as a director, to be sure, but buy the ticket, take the ride. As Wes Anderson movies go, this is practically boring from a style perspective. There’s no Sigur Rós underwater climax and no stop motion and no consistent-but-bizarre motif. The character who dresses the strangest, Eli Cash, is even remarked upon as essentially doing a bit, which is unheard of in the expanded Anderson universe. There are reasons, explained, inarguable reasons, for almost all of the strange choices. If you found this “too cute” I would imagine you are unable to abide the modern Anderson period where he’s learned that the choices absolutely do not need to be explained.

In my memory, this was much more affected, more “Andersonian,” than I found it upon rewatch. It also was much meaner as a distant idea than it is as a fresh film. I remembered less of a moral and more of a feeling of finality. I don’t know if multiple viewings or just a viewing as a much older person changed my mind, but I was really impressed. This is a movie that can grow with you and can reflect a different feeling towards family and forgiveness through different lenses. Most people I know have already seen it and it’s a fair bet you have, too, but try it again, no matter how cute you thought it was last time.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I’ve watched both Le Samouraï and The Royal Tenenbaums a few times. Both are impressive, but Le Samouraï is marked by how little happens. It’s a tone piece about suspense and waiting to see if the bomb goes off in the end or not. There’s little doubt in The Royal Tenenbaums that these wealthy characters won’t experience many real struggles but also won’t find much in the way of real connection. You know the ending from the start, if not the actions then the feeling. That should make it less interesting, but the fact that you still will want to follow dozens of plots and characters says otherwise. Is one a harder feat to accomplish than the other? No, not really, but Tenebaums is a movie I could recommend to everyone. Le Samouraï may require some explanation.

Is it the best movie of all time? It’s a strong contender, but no, I still will go with In the Mood for Love. One of the challenges here is that The Royal Tenenbaums is a movie I grew up watching. It came out when I was an older teenager and defined the way I saw film for many years. I’m too close to it, I too strongly want to nod towards it and call it perfect and capital I important and move on. I don’t have a good argument for why it isn’t other than the shock I felt then and the ton of bricks that lands on me now when I think about the ending to In the Mood for Love and how we got there.

You can watch The Royal Tenenbaums on Amazon Prime. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.


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