How one of the best movies of 2001 provoked some of the worst movies since.
By EJ Dickson
When it was released in 2001, Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums achieved near-instant renown as a contemporary indie classic. Equal parts Salinger and Whit Stillman, Anderson's quirky, disaffected take on an eccentric family of child geniuses won rave reviews from critics and audiences alike.
Since its release ten years ago today, Tenenbaums' influence has popped up everywhere from commercials to music videos to Marc Jacobs fashion lines. But as a largely great film that has inspired a slew of shittier films, Tenenbaums can be considered the cinematic equivalent to Pearl Jam, which would make movies like Igby Goes Down Nickelback. Here are some of the ways The Royal Tenenbaums has negatively influenced pop culture.
1. It made "quirky" a characterization unto itself.
From breeding Dalmatian mice to owning a hawk named Mordecai to having a wooden finger for no discernible reason, Chas, Richie, and Margot (Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow, respectively) boast idiosyncrasies that would make Michael Cera's intestines roil with jealousy. Rather than being defined solely by their quirks, however, the dysfunctional Tenenbaum children come off as fully developed characters, serving as a testament to Anderson and Wilson's prodigious writing talents.
Unfortunately, directors like Napoleon Dynamite's Jared and Jerusha Hess and Garden State's Zach Braff didn't get the memo about how to make your characters interesting without making them fucking awful. What followed was a four- or five-year period in Hollywood during which awkward, gratuitous dance numbers were considered an acceptable substitute for plot development, and eating orange Tic-Tacs and listening to the Shins were the ultimate indicators of a potential romantic partner's intelligence and depth. (Plus, deadpan spaz Napoleon Dynamite is shamelessly modeled after Tenenbaums' deadpan spaz Dudley Heinsbergen, except less deadpan and more spastic.)
2. It put the "fun" in "dysfunctional family dramedy."
Tolstoy once wrote that while happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. With Tenenbaums, Anderson took this adage to heart — as did countless other indie features produced after Tenenbaums' release. Post-Tenenbaums dramedies like Igby Goes Down, Eulogy, and Pieces of April all concern dysfunctional families who are profoundly unhappy in their own way, brought together by a devastating illness (usually, cancer) or a tragic death (usually, of an older family member who was a giant asshole when they were alive). Suffice to say that Eulogy is no Royal Tenenbaums.
3. It turned Gwyneth Paltrow into a pop-culture icon.
These days, it's hard to think of Gwyneth Paltrow as anything other than an out-of-touch blowhard who's always photographed looking like she's either just chugged a milkshake really fast, or hasn't moved her bowels in two months. But at one point, Gwyneth was the thinking man's sex symbol, in large part due to her performance as Margot in Tenenbaums. With her artfully smudged eyeliner, sleek platinum bob, and waifish frame swathed in a giant cocoon of fur, Margot made chain-smoking in your bathtub with the radio on look like an awesome and totally advisable thing to do. With hints of Edie Sedgwick and Nico, Margot was a walking advertisement for addiction, mental instability, and the benefits of making out with one's (adopted!) brother.
Of course, disaffected teenage girls everywhere latched onto Margot's sexy brand of malaise, resulting in countless fashion blogs and fangirl Tumblrs devoted to the character's style. One of these blogs, Clothes On Film, writes, "through Margot, Gwyneth became a middle-class fashion icon," which means we have Tenenbaums costume designer Karen Patch to thank for having to stare at Paltrow's smug countenance on the cover of Redbook every other fucking month.
4. It made directors think a great soundtrack could do all the work for them.
Anderson is known for using music to great effect in his films, and Tenenbaums is no exception. The soundtrack features a wide range of selections from different artists, from Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" to Van Morrison's "Everyone," all evoking the same sense of bittersweet loss and nostalgia that permeates Anderson's oeuvre. In due time, the soundtrack became so inextricably connected to the images in the film that it's now hard to listen to "Needle in the Hay" without thinking of Richie's attempted suicide, or to hear "Judy is a Punk" without picturing Gwyneth Paltrow groping a nubile young Frenchwoman.
With this in mind, indie dramedies post-Tenenbaums placed just as strong an emphasis on the soundtrack, with Garden State, Juno, (500) Days of Summer, Away We Go, and Adventureland serving as the most prominent examples. Unfortunately, most people aren't as good at this as Wes Anderson. With the possible exception of Juno (which features the second-most effective usage of a Mott the Hoople song in film history), most of these films fall short of packing the emotional punch of Anderson's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" montage, or Margot's exit from the Green Line bus set to Nico's "These Days." Rather than letting the soundtrack underscore the emotional arc of the film, directors started using Smiths tunes to define their characters and the more accessible tracks off Lou Reed's solo albums to move the plot forward. This makes watching Away We Go feel like a Grey's Anatomy montage, or an extended version of an Alexi Murdoch music video.
5. It jinxed the careers of everyone involved.
Like the Tenenbaums themselves, the cast members of The Royal Tenenbaums function much better as an ensemble than they do individually, a dynamic that resulted in some of the actors giving the best performances of their careers. Although we've already addressed Paltrow's disappointing career trajectory post-Tenenbaums, both Stiller and Wilson have also failed to do work this good again. Stiller, who was so impressive as the manic yet vulnerable Chas, went on to deliver listless performances in forgettable films like Envy, Greenberg and the recently released Tower Heist. And let's not even get started on Luke Wilson's AT&T commercials.
Yet The Royal Tenenbaums still resonates with audiences, partly because we can all relate to its essential message: that finding out you're not as special and unique as you once thought you were totally sucks. Perhaps some of the movies that have tried to emulate Tenenbaums can learn from this message as well.