Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson provided some of the biggest laughs of the evening during the Oscar 2002 broadcast. The two pretended to get into a shouting match when, after Wilson defended the Academy's insistence on having them wear costumes from "Harry Potter 1" and "The Lord of the Rings 1", Stiller called Wilson a "company man" since Wilson was nominated for co-scripting "The Royal Tenenbaums". Wilson responded by asking Stiller if the latter seriously thought that "Zoolander" had any chance of being nominated for anything. Their hilarious bit ended with Stiller stomping off-camera while Wilson yelled, "Producer! Director! Actor! Quitter!" in a sarcastic nod to Stiller's versatility as a filmmaker.
Both gentlemen appeared in "Zoolander" as well as "The Royal Tenenbaums". Despite their real-life friendship, they frequently get involved in on-screen tussles. In "Tenenbaums", Wilson plays Eli Cash, a fellow who grew up across the street from the Tenenbaum family. He always envied the genius-level achievements of the Tenenbaum children, and as a best-selling novelist when he grows up, he develops a drug habit, culminating in crashing his car into the Tenenbaum residence and killing Chas's (Ben Stiller) dog. This incident sends Chas over an emotional edge, and Chas in turn throws Eli over a brick wall into the Japanese ambassador's residence next door.
Neither Chas nor Eli is the focus of "The Royal Tenenbaums", however. Rather, the film is about all of the Tenenbaums. There's Royal (Gene Hackman), the family patriarch who's been living by himself in a hotel for the past 20 years. There's Etheline (Angelica Huston), separated but not divorced from Royal but considering marrying Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), her accountant. Then there are the 3 children. Chas, a child finance whiz, conducts random fire drills and makes his 2 sons wear bright red track suits for visibility's sake because he's distraught over losing his wife in an airplane crash. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), a successful child playwright, now sits in a bathtub all day, worrying her psychologist husband Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray). Richie (Luke Wilson, brother of Owen), a tennis prodigy, self-destructed in a championship game by committing more than 70 unforced errors, taking off his shoes and socks, serving underhand, and losing 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. There's also Pagoda, a family servant so faithful that he tells Royal that Henry proposed to Etheline despite the fact that Royal hasn't really been a part of the family for most of the children's lives.
Disbarred (forbidden to practice law) and broke, Royal concocts an elaborate ruse. He tells his family that he's about to die from cancer so that he can move back into the family house. Everyone resents him, of course, most especially Chas and Margot. You see, Royal would always take Richie on father-son outings (mostly to gamble on dog-fights), and Royal always introduced Margot to his friends as "my adopted daughter". The children are also mired in their own quagmires. They simply peaked too early in life, and they've been adrift due to their inability to cope with their fall from glory. They're in no condition to be receptive to Royal's attempts to reconcile with them.
Helmed by "Rushmore"-director Wes Anderson and co-scripted by Anderson and Owen Wilson, "The Royal Tenenbaums" plays like a series of snapshots, which is fitting since the characters are so dissociated from one another. The children had too much talent too young, and they never had the opportunity to adjust to their greatness. Eli has had to live in his friends' shadows, and sudden commercial (but not critical) success has caused him to forget who he is. However, despite the fact that they loathe Royal, his presence works like therapy for Chas, Margot, and Richie. The 3 younger Tenenbaums have also moved back into their childhood home in the hopes that their mother can comfort them. While living together again for the first time in 17 years, the children work out the kinks in their relationships. Unresolved sibling issues are responsible for a large part of the Tenenbaums' catatonia.
Though not nominated for an Oscar, Gene Hackman received a Golden Globe Award (Best Actor--Comedy) for his performance as Royal Tenenbaum. Hackman does his best work as an irascible, irritable rascal, and he hasn't been this touching or effective in years. His character and his acting form the glue that holds this ensemble piece together. The other actors all do a fine job, often touching upon the hilarious, the tragic, and the transcendent all at once.
However, one of the film's major weaknesses is that it tackles too much in too little time. "The Royal Tenenbaums" runs a shade under 2 hours, and not enough time is given to each character for them to make individual impacts on the viewer. Thus, it's easy to see the children's collective states as a group failure rather than personal mishaps. Also, rather than showing us how the Tenenbaum family reached its sorry condition, we're simply told that younger generation has lost its way. Okay, sure, Richie had a total breakdown on the tennis court because Margot got married the day before the match, but surely, some other things in life must've gotten him down?
The undeniably literate script (from the undeniably well-read, well-informed, and intelligent Anderson/Wilson team) points at influences from a number of cultural sources. Therefore, the film offers a rich flavor all-too-rare in contemporary cinema. As I wrote, though, the filmmakers condense too many things into a movie that could've been at least half an hour longer. The material needs breathing room in order to take full effect--the funny moments would've had bigger payoffs, and the pathos would've hit harder.
From what I understand, movies filmed with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio are commonly projected as 2.40:1 compositions in theatres. The DVD release of "The Royal Tenenbaums" sports a 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen video transfer. I don't have any major complaints about the video quality of the DVD release. Once in a while, the usual specks or slight shimmering appear, but the video generally pleases the eye. I would've liked the print to have been a shade brighter than it is, but this is a fine transfer.
You can watch the movie with any of the following audio tracks: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, DD 2.0 surround English (for those of you without digital sound set-ups), or DTS 5.1 English. For the most part, music provides much of the robustness of the sound design. There are only a handful of moments with surround effects as the audio mix leans heavily towards the front. None of the story's action takes place in tumultuous environments, so the audio sounds clean and pleasant. (Given the kind of movie that "The Royal Tenenbaums" is, the DTS track doesn't offer a qualitatively different experience from watching the film with the DD 5.1 track.)
English subtitles support the audio.
The Criterion Collection's DVD release of the film is a 2-disc set. Disc 1 contains the film along with an audio commentary, and Disc 2 contains the remainder of the supplements.
The only extra on Disc 1 is an audio commentary by Wes Anderson. He has a lot to say about the production, speaking fairly continuously throughout the film. Chatty and informative, this is a pretty good commentary.
When the Main Menu on Disc 2 is displayed, you'll notice that there's an arrow pointing to Criterion's banner at the top of the monitor. Clicking on that arrow will access a short clip of Ben Stiller, breaking out of character, welcoming you to the DVD experience of "The Royal Tenenbaums".
"With the Filmmaker: Portraits by Albert Maysles" is a kind of video diary of the production. A video camera follows the filmmakers around the set as the movie goes through pre-production, production, and post-production phases.
There are video interviews and behind-the-scenes footage of Gene Hackman, Angelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, and Danny Glover. You can select each person's interview individually, or you can play them all together continuously. The best interview has to be the one with Bill Murray--his wry, sarcastic remarks about appearing in the movie reveals that he doesn't take himself too seriously (as the other cast members sometimes do) and that he's rather fond of Wes Anderson.
"The Peter Bradley Show" is the weirdest bonus included in this DVD set. Basically, it's a "talk show" interview with people who've appeared in Wes Anderson's 3 movies, but they're mostly used as extras with one or two lines of dialogue. It's very in-joke-y and inoffensively (but unproductively) wacky.
In the section of the DVD entitled "The Art of the Movie", you'll find a plethora of stills galleries. You can peruse young Richie's murals and paintings (he always wanted to be a painter, not a tennis player, and he drew a ton of portraits of Margot), still photographs by set photographer James Hamilton, book and magazine covers as seen in the movie, and storyboards. There's also a "Studio 360" radio segment on painter Miguel Calderon, whose works figure prominently in Eli Cash's apartment.
Finally, there are some outtakes (listed on the back cover but encoded as Easter Eggs in the menu for the stills galleries) and the film's teaser trailer and final trailer.
The DVD set includes two inserts. One includes an essay about the film, film production credits, DVD production credits, and chapter listings. The other insert includes drawings by Eric Anderson, brother of director Wes, of the Tenenbaums' mansion.
Given what the 2-disc set of "The Royal Tenenbaums" offers, I felt that a single-disc release would have been sufficient. I like the extras, but they are neither substantive nor extensive enough to merit the "prestige factor" of a 2-disc set. (Indeed, I believe that everything WOULD fit on 1 DVD had the extraneous DTS track been left off of Disc 1.) As for the film itself...writers Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson have an interesting story to tell, but "The Royal Tenenbaums" needs that extra "something" to make it truly fly. The characters' personality quirks say a great deal about their shattered psyches, but there should've been a reach for something greater than just redemption and familial reconciliation. I'm reminded of 1995's "Heat", a film about a cop trying to stop a thief from committing another crime. In many ways, "Heat" has a simpler story than "Tenenbaums". However, while "Heat" allegorizes the cop-thief conflict as an existential struggle for survival, "Tenenbaums" limits itself to bite-size morsels of life lessons. Still, I heartily recommend "The Royal Tenenbaums", a fine tragicomedy boasting a stellar performance by Gene Hackman.
Note: While the DVD release of "The Royal Tenenbaums" sports The Criterion Collection's banner (as well as Spine No. 157), it is a joint release handled by both Criterion and Buena Vista (the film was released theatrically by Touchstone Pictures, Buena Vista's live-action arm). Some Criterion/Buena Vista collaborations are distributed exclusively by Criterion (such as the special editions of "Armageddon" and "The Rock", which have separate movie-only editions from Buena Vista). Other collaborative efforts are created by Criterion but commercially distributed by Buena Vista (such as "Chasing Amy" and "The Royal Tenenbaums"). Some of you may have noticed that Criterion and Buena Vista's websites offer different versions of the DVD set's cover art--one a drawing of Richie on the roof of the Tenenbaum residence, the other a photo of the cast. A double-Alpha case with the drawn cover art holds the 2-disc set. The whole package is enclosed in a cardboard sleeve with the cast photo.