The Royal Tenenbaums is better than Rushmore. That’s not saying much, but it is true. Somewhere in this mess of insufferable clichés and forced eccentricity are the sparks of talent that eventually led to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Despite all the postmodern nonsense, the stereotypical characters and the lack of connection to any kind of reality, there are moments when the film is actually good. Short moments, granted, but short moments are better than no moments.
Mostly, though, it’s insufferable bullshit.
The problem with the movie is that it’s a character-oriented story with no characters. Instead of characters, it has a cast of caricatures; few of them are likeable, and none of them are realistic in any sense of the word. Where it has potential to be touching, it destroys any real emotions by making its characters into jokes; where it has potential to be intelligent, it is simply too affected and too lazy to give any real depth.
Particularly offensive is the character of Margot Tenenbaum, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Here we have someone who is supposedly an artist, a playwright – a genius, in fact. And yet all we see is a self-involved, pointlessly promiscuous “quirky” depressive with no vision, no passion and no real reason to be that way other than superficial “daddy issues.” One generally does have to wonder at the depiction of women, both here and in Rushmore, as entirely passive figures, either saints or sluts.
And let’s not even get into the weirdness that is Pagoda, Royal Tenenbaum’s handy Indian servant, who apparently has no life of his own.
The Royal Tenenbaums is simply too far removed from reality to be good. Not because of its subject matter, or even because of its aesthetics, but simply because it’s not about real people or real emotions. There are glimpses of reality in some scenes, especially the ones with Gene Hackman and Anjelica Houston, but to some degree that is simply because these two actors are fantastically skilled. (Though even if the characters were more realistic, it would take a very talented and perceptive writer to make these rich people’s problems interesting.)
When Wes Anderson makes movies that aren’t yelling “look at me! look at me! I’m so quirky!” all the time, and starts portraying some adult emotions, he can be a very good filmmaker. The Royal Tenenbaums, unfortunately, is not one of those movies.