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'Royal Tenenbaums' at 20: How the film that established the 'Wes Anderson effect' is still making its mark

Updated 14th December 2021
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, Kumar Pallana, Grant Rosenmeyer, Jonah Meyerson, 2001.
Credit: Courtesy of Everett Collection
'Royal Tenenbaums' at 20: How the film that established the 'Wes Anderson effect' is still making its mark
Written by Marianna Cerini, CNN
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If a Wes Anderson fan were to make a list of all the things that make them so bewitched with the director's films, it might include the following: bespoke design, symmetrical close-ups, a highly saturated color palette, eccentric characters and impeccably studied outfits. But also carefully shot compositions, elaborate sets, observant human comedy and a sense for the whimsical that few other filmmakers have been able to match.
"The Royal Tenenbaums," which was released in cinemas 20 years ago today, features all these elements. In fact, it was Anderson's first movie to lay them out in the open and cement his style -- though this was his third movie after "Bottle Rocket" in 1996 and "Rushmore" in 1998.
Owen Wilson played bestselling author Eli Cash, who lived across the street from the Tenenbaums and had long become an extended member of the family.
Owen Wilson played bestselling author Eli Cash, who lived across the street from the Tenenbaums and had long become an extended member of the family. Credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock
It's no wonder that, two decades on, many consider it the most significant of his works -- the archetypical Anderson film.
"I would define Anderson's aesthetic as first and foremost that of a collector: of someone committed to bringing together disparate items, each uniquely beautiful or interesting in its own singular way, and arranging them in a kind of pristine and ordered display," wrote Donna Kornhaber, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the book "Wes Anderson: A Collector's Cinema," in an email.
"'The Royal Tenenbaums' was absolutely the first real appearance of this aesthetic in Anderson's work. I'd argue that it is the urtext of Anderson's filmography because it is the film where his subject matter and his style are most closely in sync."
Looking back on it, it's hard to disagree.
A visual tour-de-force, "The Royal Tenenbaums" is the cult classic that informed all of Anderson's subsequent work -- and without which the Wes Anderson-esque world of books, Instagram accounts, music videos and fashion that's become so entrenched in modern pop culture wouldn't quite be the phenomenon it is today.

A movie of firsts

While Anderson's films are instantly recognizable for their hyperdeliberate style and compelling cinematography, they're also quintessentially "Andersonian" for their unorthodox plots and myriad characters.
"The Royal Tenenbaums" helped forge that path.
Split into a series of chapters as if it were a novel, the movie tells the story of the great (albeit greatly dysfunctional) Tenenbaum family, helmed by patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), as everyone comes together during an unexpected winter reunion in their New York mansion.
Deeply flawed and studiously idiosyncratic, each persona in the film is completely absorbed by his or her own obsessions, yet ultimately reaches for the same goal: to be loved.
Deeply flawed and studiously idiosyncratic, each persona in the film is completely absorbed by his or her own obsessions, yet ultimately reaches for the same goal: to be loved. Credit: James Hamilton/Touchstone/Kobal/Shutterstock
A disbarred attorney, Royal has been living in a hotel, on credit, since separating from his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston), whom he's trying to win back. His children, three former child prodigies, are to blame for his financial indigence. There's Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), who was adopted and has been a gifted playwright since ninth grade but hasn't had a hit for some time; Richie (Luke Wilson), a former tennis champion; and Chas (Ben Stiller), who was a financial speculator as a kid and is now going through a breakdown because of the death of his wife.
The offbeat, "outsider" figures that populate the film would go on to become a recurring feature of Anderson's work -- think of "Moonrise Kingdom," "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "The Life Aquatic."
But the movie also solidified other stylistic tropes.
"The Royal Tenenbaums" was the first of Anderson's films to really merge together storytelling and visual art, taking the filmmaker's stunning attention to details to an entire new level of meticulousness (like the family's weather-beaten banner that waves gently atop their house, or the dalmatian mice that pop up on the corner of the frame every so often, which had their spots drawn on with Sharpies).
The chunky headband worn by Luke Wilson's character, Richie, provided inspiration for real-life designers.
The chunky headband worn by Luke Wilson's character, Richie, provided inspiration for real-life designers. Credit: James Hamilton/Touchstone/Kobal/Shutterstock
It made costumes an essential part of his characters -- a device to reveal more about their inner state than any other element. Similarly, it was the first to center on a family story ("Fantastic Mr. Fox" being the other, and, in a different way, "The Darjeeling Limited"), and to bring the director's fantasy world outside of his native Texas, where both "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore" had been set.
"Anderson gave himself permission to envision a whole new geography for the first time, constructing a fantastical New York City of the imagination," Kornhaber said. "Such geographic flights of fancy would become one of the signature features of his body of work, from 'The Life Aquatic' through to 'The French Dispatch.'"

'The Wes Anderson aesthetic'

The visual imprint of "The Royal Tenenbaums" didn't stop on screen.
What makes the film so eminently rewatchable today is, undeniably, the "Wes Anderson aesthetic" it ushered onto the real world -- from the clothes in our wardrobes to the furnishings of restaurants.
Think of Margot's glamorous retro ensembles and heavy eyeliner, Chas' iconic red Adidas tracksuits and Richie's chunky headband (a reference to the Borg-McEnroe tennis era).
They're all looks referenced over the past decades by both mainstream brands (H&M, J.Crew) and high-end designers, including Marc Jacobs, who featured Margot-influenced mid-length hems and plush fabrics in his 2008 Louis Vuitton spring collection; and Gucci, which has been drawing from the Tenenbaums closet since Alessandro Michele became its creative director in 2015.
Tenenbaum-chic reached its apex that year, with no fewer than six designers -- including Veronica Etro and Felipe Oliveira Baptista -- citing the film as an influence on their fall collections.
Gwyneth Paltrow's character, Margot, has provided inspiration for a number of real-life designers.
Gwyneth Paltrow's character, Margot, has provided inspiration for a number of real-life designers. Credit: Touchstone Pictures/Alamy
Then there's the sprawling Tenenbaums estate, where most of the film takes place. It "would go on to become among the most recognizable domiciles on film, a kind of hipster Hogwarts (or, to take a more classical Hollywood reference, a later-day update to the estate in Orson Welles' 'The Magnificent Ambersons,' which it was meant to evoke)," Kornhaber said.
That same eye-catching aesthetic -- with its whimsical pastel colors, patterned wallpapers and retro-flavored touches -- has permeated the world of 21st-century interiors.
Through all its costumes, sets and scenes -- the result of collaborations with costume designer Karen Patch and production designer David Wasco -- "The Royal Tenenbaums" was pivotal in shaping the fashion sensibilities of hipster millennials everywhere (one might even say it helped define "nerdcore" and "geek chic"), and inspired entire design subcultures.
Anderson's later movies have all followed in the same footsteps, influencing more fashion, more design and more pop culture -- and making "out of a Wes Anderson film" a common sentence in our everyday lexicon, but also a mood we keep aspiring to.
For Kornhaber, the "Wes Anderson effect" stems from the underlying sensibility of his filmmaking.
"I think Anderson's aesthetic speaks very strongly to the idea of creating beauty and order out of discord and disarray," she said. "He offers the fantasy that if we just rearrange things a little bit, we can create a new version of the world where everything is in exactly the right place, all lines run parallel or perpendicular, everything is symmetrical, all the colors are coordinated."
The Tenenbaums' sprawling estate, where most of the film takes place, "would go on to become among the most recognizable domiciles on film," Kornhaber said.
The Tenenbaums' sprawling estate, where most of the film takes place, "would go on to become among the most recognizable domiciles on film," Kornhaber said. Credit: Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
Ultimately, however, a fascination with all-things Anderson -- and the reason why "The Royal Tenenbaums" continues to stand as a statement movie today -- likely comes from the unique way style and substance inform one another.
"If Anderson were simply an extraordinary stylist, I don't think he would have the success as a filmmaker that he has had," Kornhaber said.
"The real power of his work comes in the purposes to which he puts that style. There's an underlying sadness to Anderson's films, a profound sense of loss at the center of each story -- a loved one gone, a family coming apart. Anderson's acute attention to visual design goes hand-in-hand with that sorrow. Style isn't purposeless in his films: it's an attempt to remediate a deep sense of loss through a willful insistence on order."

Add to queue: Irresistibly stylish films

Federico Fellini's groundbreaking 1960 satire "La Dolce Vita" is one of the most stylistically rich movies out there. Filled with dreamlike and surreal images (including that of Christ being helicoptered over Rome, possibly on his way to the Pope), it follows Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a handsome gossip journalist who is a hedonist, womanizer and habitué of the fashionable Via Veneto, as he drifts through life, romantic conquests and self-reflection in the Eternal City. Fellini created a gigantic full-scale replica of the Via Veneto at the Cinecittà studios for the movie -- just one of its many theatrical aspects.
Designer Tom Ford's directorial debut is a triumph of color-saturated set design, great characters, captivating cinematography and detail-driven storytelling -- including sumptuous 1960s props and hairstyles to the charming locations. It's a day-in-the-life tale of George Falconer (Colin Firth) -- a gay and deeply depressed British university professor living in '60s Southern California, who is grief-stricken by the recent loss his lover. As he plans to take his own life, a series of encounters slice up his day and keep getting in the way.
A man (Harry Dean Stanton) with no recollection of his recent life stumbles into a dead-end town at the edge of the Texas desert. He's taken to a clinic, and eventually reunited with his brother (Dean Stockwell). As he begins to remember the life he led, and the fact he turned his back on his wife and child, he embarks on a journey to reunite with his family. Directed by Wim Wenders, it's a visually poetic, highly atmospheric portrayal of America, with compelling performances and a music score that has stood the test of time.
Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), an aspiring photographer, falls in love with an older woman, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), who's going through a divorce in 1950s New York. The two develop an intimate bond, which isn't without difficult consequences. Directed by Todd Haynes, this lush emotional melodrama is a lesson in stylized cinema, with a subdued color palette, characters glimpsed from voyeuristic angles in POV shots, and highly studied outfits, courtesy of costume designer Sandy Powell -- including fur coats, slim-fitting Hattie Carnegie-style suits and dresses, and luxe accessories.
"Amelie," by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, tells the story of a shy Montmartre waitress (Audrey Tautou) with an active imagination, who decides to change the lives of those around her for the better while struggling with her own loneliness. It's a whirlwind of visual effects and creative flourishes, stylistic quirks and fantastical flights of fancy.