Five Ways The Royal Tenenbaums Ruined Everything (Through No Fault Of Its Own)

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.

Commentarium (44 Comments)

Dec 14 11 - 1:26am
Wait Five Minutes

It's not one of the best movies of 2001 or any other year. It's terrible and insufferable. I loved Wes Anderson "Rushmore" but not this one... and basically, not anything since.

Dec 14 11 - 1:50pm
chickensalad

I hated it the first time I saw it, thought it was insufferable. I came around though.

Dec 14 11 - 1:53am
HipHop Hippo

Bill Murray, on the other hand, just continues to be at his awesome perfect peak <3

Just look at his role in Zombieland. Best cameo. Ever.

Dec 14 11 - 1:57am
Tango Turner

Horrible movie. I still want my money back on this one.

Dec 14 11 - 3:50am
dudeofadude

you're crazy. that was a great movie.

Dec 20 11 - 2:06pm
Duck

terrible movie. shamelessly trying to cash in on the zombie craze with a flimsy plot and stunt casting.

Dec 14 11 - 2:11am
gahbrain

So what movie has the 1st most effective usage of a Mott the Hoople song?

Dec 14 11 - 12:30pm
EJ Dickson

"Clueless," of course! "All The Young Dudes" plays during Cher's monologue about why she doesn't date high school boys. "All the Way to Memphis," which is featured prominently in Scorsese's "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," probably comes in a close third.

Dec 14 11 - 1:34pm
Hoop the Mottle

Wrong, writer-with-initials. Alice = #1.

Dec 14 11 - 2:18am
m-m-m

I think it's Anderson's homogeneous composition that infuriates me the most: every character dead center in the frame, surrounded perfectly by stupid shit on the wall. Each individual shot serves to highlight the artificiality of the film itself, completely undermining his attempts at emotion. He slavishly follows the rule of thirds and refuses to budge on including any interesting shot other than the jump-zoom. Plus the forced whimsy just gets on my tits.

Dec 14 11 - 2:30am
bg

I saw both Tenebaums and Igby Goes Down in the theaters (so, awhile ago), but I do not remember at all thinking that Tenebaums was substantially better. In fact it was kind of pretentious and weird for weird's sake.

Also, Napolean Dynamite is a very different film so cannot really be compared. Personally I enjoyed it more than Tenenbaums.

Dec 14 11 - 1:35pm
Your Mom

Dinner's almost ready. Put your Lincoln Logs away and come on down.

Dec 14 11 - 5:30pm
jp

I agree with bg. The RT's was OK, but consciously pretentious. It has way too much ego in the mix.

Dec 16 11 - 3:20am
I dunno

I agree with you about the pretention, and whimsy, and weird for weird's sake, but damn, it was so entertaining. And also, at the time, all of this weirdness for weirdness's sake was new, at least to me, and so it was really fresh, and as I said above, just incredibly well done. Garden State, and Juno, and the fifty-odd other films after this just seemed so much less clever, and so much more precious and self-conscious, they suck the air right out of the room. I think there's something to be said for being there first, especially if you're by far the best. Also, agree with bg about Napoleon Dynamite. Love that movie.

Dec 14 11 - 2:38am
chuck

1) Ben Stiller did good work in Greenberg and 2) this film marks the first -- and last -- time Gwyneth Paltrow has been sexy in a film.

Dec 14 11 - 1:36pm
Ralph Fiennes

My brother saw her boobies up close in that Shakespeare movie that I did not direct (in theatres now).

Dec 14 11 - 3:33am
nope

I agree with this article completely (and I think it's pretty accurate whether or not you actually enjoyed the Royal Tenenbaums), except for two things. The "dysfunctional family drama" genre has been along LONG before the Royal Tenenbaums, having a storied history in theater and literature as well as being a staple genre of independent film. (Someone should have told Yasujiro Ozu that quirky family dramadies weren't supposed to be a thing before the 21st century.) The Royal Tenenbaums may have sparked a glut but it certainly didn't invent the theme.
And, you have a selective Ben Stiller memory. The guy does uneven work, but since the Royal Tenenbaums he's been in Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Tropic Thunder. Greenberg was mediocre but he was the best thing about it. I agree that Wilson and Paltrow's careers, though, have been really strange and disappointing.

Dec 14 11 - 3:46am
Are you kidding?

This reviewer was obviously quite moved by the 'Royal Tenebaums'. I found it enjoyable and would be lying if I didn't say I liked it but a "classic"?!? I think not (in point of fact Anderson's first film 'Bottle Rocket' was a thousand times better) and Gwyneth Paltrow is NOT nor has ever been "a pop-culture icon". (She's little more than a twit, and because of her ostrach chin, not a very attractive twit at that.) I'm not sure what demographic this reviewer is speaking for but this is one of the most 'out-of-touch' articles I've ever read.

Dec 14 11 - 5:45am
In point of fact...

what you're saying is, you liked Wes Anderson before he was popular?

Dec 14 11 - 9:52am
mm

ha ha ha +1

Dec 14 11 - 3:30pm
....

You look like a little banana.

Dec 14 11 - 3:50am
dudeofadude

totally agree. but i suppose you could make this argument about a lot of great things - alice in chains, pearl jam, halloween, etc. actually, those might be good articles!

Dec 14 11 - 4:44am
lemon

Fuck you. "Igby Goes Down" was awesome. Second, other really good "dysfunctional family" dramedies post-Royal Tenenbaums include "Running with Scissors" and "Charlie Bartlett."

Dec 14 11 - 9:53am
mm

I'm just going to assume this comment is meant to be read satirically.

Dec 14 11 - 11:47am
Weary

"Running With Scissors" may well be the worst movie of the last decade.

Dec 18 11 - 4:46pm
T.J.

I agree with 'lemmon'. I much preferred 'Igby Goes Down' to the 'Royal Tenenbaums'.

Dec 14 11 - 5:42am
Psst

It's a little unfair to lump Napoleon Dynamite in with all the others, isn't it? The one is a goofball comedy while the rest all try to be searing, witty looks into the upper-middle-class American family, no?

Dec 14 11 - 12:26pm
Myke

Exactly.

Dec 15 11 - 12:20pm
steve

yeah, odd comparison

Dec 14 11 - 12:17pm
Myke

Napoleon Dynamite and Greenberg are both passable at least. God knows there are plenty of other films firmly in the Anderson mold that you could take your well-articulated and totally correct anger out on. In fact I think it's a bit of a stretch to compare Napoleon Dynamite to The Royal Tenenbaums, considering the former celebrates mundanity and the weirdness of ordinary life whereas the latter creates a grim fantasy version of what Napoleon Dynamite tries to convey naturalistically. In other words, they're basically polar opposites, with maybe that 'quirk' factor being a tenuous connector (and even then Napoleon is more of a loser composite than a hipster composite). I'd say Juno in particular plays like the child of Napoleon Dynamite and The Royal Tenenbaums, trying to have it both ways and not pulling either off very well (it succeeds in other ways, but definitely not stylistically. Good job Reitman).

Basically what I think happens when any one director synthesizes a ton of influences and creates their own vision is that the imitators ignore that defining artist's influences and just copy that artist's style wholesale. This happened with Quentin Tarantino a decade ago. Both Anderson and Tarantino count Godard as an influence, which is great. Who do their imitators count as influences? Anderson and Tarantino themselves. Now, I'm not saying anyone who ever directs a film has to go back to the first decades of cinema to learn their craft, but it does seem like a lot of bad imitators just obsess over the trendiest new director and steal that style for themselves, and it just leads to ever-diminishing returns. Things get less and less diverse if everyone idolizes the same director and eventually all the successors end up looking the same, as this list rightly points out. Anderson, incidentally, doesn't count Tarantino as an influence. His vision is far too expansive to be limited to Indiewood's last big It Boy. His imitators might do well to keep that in mind.

Dec 14 11 - 12:24pm
Myke

But really, Anderson's biggest crime was convincing a generation of sullen white kids that their middle-/upper-middle-class upbringings are anything worth telling the world about. The same criticism could be (and has been) lobbed at Anderson, but at least Anderson had a touch of irony and a lot of stylistic bravado to distort the narcissism of his vision. Not to mention he's done more than loose autobiographies before and since. Lesser (white, middle-/upper-middle-class) directors treat their trite childhood sadnesses and losses of innocence like the Fall From Grace. Throw in an only-slightly-dysfunctional family and boom!, you have The Royal Tenenbaums without any of the grace or self-awareness. In the same way Spielberg (and Lucas) can be held accountable for decades of badly-made blockbusters, Anderson will forever have to answer for playing enabler to a generation of mildly depressed self-absorbed rich white kids who think their boring life stories are the most interesting thing in the world and worthy of being shared with audiences worldwide.

Dec 14 11 - 4:02pm
nope

"Now, I'm not saying anyone who ever directs a film has to go back to the first decades of cinema to learn their craft"

I don't see why not. Learning the history and masters of your craft is expected of artists and writers; why not directors?

Dec 14 11 - 7:34pm
Myke

Well, I think insisting all films need an identifiable classical base is a little restricting (though I too certainly wouldn't mind if that were to become standard practice). What I meant was more that a person is certainly entitled to list directors working after 1960 as influences, but that only listing directors who did their most prominent work in the last decade or two is more than a little myopic/lazy. Ideally there would be a balance between drawing from good contemporary sources and classical ones. Leaning too heavily on one or the other tends to damage a film (though exclusively classically-inspired ones often turn out better than entirely modern ones, I'll concede).

Dec 14 11 - 4:10pm
SB

Not a big fan of the Royals, but I also thought Garden State was a good flick with good character development.

Always interesting how film critics write like their words are the ONLY opinion that matters. Everyone will have a different view as to what they like and dislike.

Dec 15 11 - 12:19pm
tmp

Tenenbaums never quite worked for me. There's something kind of weirdly antiseptic about it--it never seems to have a real vitality. It's kind of like Belle and Sebastian in movie form.

Dec 15 11 - 1:17pm
Myke

That's kind of the point though. It's emotionally paralytic just like its stunted protagonists so that when brief spurts of real emotion seep through (Luke Wilson's attempted suicide, Ben Stiller's "It's been a rough year Dad"), it's all the more striking for the contrast against the forced remove of the rest of the film. That's the idea, anyhow. Whether or not it actually works for you emotionally is a personal thing.

Dec 15 11 - 3:40pm
julia s

This is perfect.

Dec 16 11 - 10:08pm
scottj31

I watched Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums and have no idea why I should care anything about them. To me they're miserable, uncomfortable, and pointless; certainly I don't want to see anything else by Wes Anderson.

Dec 18 11 - 4:47pm
Agreed

Agree!

Dec 17 11 - 11:37am
dora1234

My friend often said life is lack of passion till he met a cutest girl Angel on --CasualLoving dot c'0m--. It's where for men and women looking for intimate encounters.
It's a first and safe place for people who wanna to start a short-term relationship....
no bounds or limits in front of true love.

Dec 18 11 - 6:20am
L

Say what you want about the rest of the film, the "Expectations vs. Reality" scene in "500 Days of Summer" (played against Regina Spektor's "Hero") is one of my all-time favorite movies scenes

the scene:
http://vimeo.com/8448267

Dec 19 11 - 12:54am
Jfs$2)

Actually 'Royal Tenenbaum's' was already a step down from Wes Anderson's earlier masterpiece, 'Rushmore'. Rushmore is the 'Revolver' to Royal Tenenbaum's 'Sgt. Pepper'-- a better work of art that often gets overshadowed by it's glossier successor.

Dec 19 11 - 1:03am
Myke

Rushmore actually was better, but The Royal Tenenbaums is still his second best movie. Followed by The Fantastic Mr. Fox, then Bottle Rocket, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and finally The Darjeeling Limited in distant sixth.

Dec 21 11 - 12:37am
Litsa

How did we get this far w/ no one mentioning "Tennenbaums" is narrated by Alec Baldwin? If you're going to employ narration by a character not otherwise in the film, go Baldwin or go home.