After absentee patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) announces he has just six weeks to live, his dysfunctional family of former child prodigies and washed-up overachievers reconnects against their better judgement.
Only Wes Anderson’s third film, The Royal Tenenbaums fully embodies his idiosyncratic style, pitched somewhere between eccentric European and American hipster. Like Arrested Development meets Amélie (released around the same time), it has the former’s familial finagling and the latter’s quirky detail, all governed by a visual precision that verges on Kubrickian. You could freeze any frame, hang it on your wall and open an arty bistro. And then lock all the twats inside and run away.
That being said, what separates this 2001 offering from its more irksome ilk is a level of discipline that miraculously translates into breezy pacing, committing to its absurdity but never dwelling for long enough for the realisation that you’re enjoying an Owen Wilson script to set in. Unless you’re Gene Hackman, who the cast agree was in a “fucking bad mood” the whole time, yet delivers a tragicomic masterclass all the same. The rest of Anderson’s ensemble (Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, Bill Murray etc.) are terrific, no surprises there except the revelation that when she doesn’t really have to emote, Gwyneth Paltrow is actually quite good.
Thematically the comedy enjoys a focus lacking from Anderson’s last couple of features, finding emotion beneath the hyper-stylised fashion, which evokes a time and place recognisable only as a Wes Anderson movie. 20 years on it remains one of his finest works, not least for an eclectic soundtrack that unites The Clash with Vince Guaraldi. In an open letter to the director, jazz-rock geniuses and cocaine enthusiasts Steely Dan called the picture “disappointing”, however the duo behind ephebophile anthem ‘Hey Nineteen’ are not necessarily arbiters of good taste.