The Royal Tenenbaums: Me and Wes Down by the School Yard

Royal Tenenbaums Gwyneth Paltrow & Luke Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums (Buena Vista Pictures)

How Wes Anderson’s bittersweet family dramedy helped me break rules, love cinema, & change my life.

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For Thanksgiving, we’re going off the beaten path this month and asking contributors to write about the movie they’re most thankful for experiencing. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Life took a different route for me in January 2002, and all because I walked out of Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. No offense to Fellowship. I would later watch the movie about one million times and can assemble every frame of the movie in my head like a blindfolded marine putting together a rifle. It was the movie I snuck into that changed things.

I was halfway through my eighth grade year at a Catholic school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A city that’s half college town, half suburb, with poorly maintained roads and strip malls connecting everything. It was a great place to grow up, honestly. It wasn’t a big market for movies though, and we would only get the occasional indie or foreign film. When Christopher Nolan’s Memento showed up it was just for a week and my friends and I had to ask our confused parents to take us to this movie about a guy who can’t remember anything. 

One day that winter I read in the movie section of the local paper that a film directed by some dude named Wes Anderson called The Royal Tenenbaums was playing in one theater in the city that weekend. For all I knew, it would be the ONLY weekend. 

I didn’t know much about it besides it was “critically acclaimed” (a fun new concept for my little movie lover brain to understand) and that it had a good cast and just the general plot- child prodigies who never lived up to their full potential now find themselves back in the home they grew up in thanks to shady machinations of their absent father, Royal (Gene Hackman).

The only problem was that it was rated R, and in the dark teenage years before turning seventeen, this was the biggest hurdle I had to overcome as a precocious boy trying to see cool things. Luckily, the security at these small town movie theaters were not exactly overwhelming, so I usually got away with my devious plan by buying a ticket for a PG-13 movie and then just casually walking into the rated R one. 

Side note-the only movie I was not able to sneak into was David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive in 2001. The security was too strong, and by that I mean they had a dude stand outside the theater checking IDs. 

My plan was to buy a ticket for the first Lord of the Rings movie and then ditch those Hobbit losers ten minutes in and walk across the hallway to Tenenbaums. I timed it perfectly, but not before being tempted to stay for the rest of Fellowship because don’t forget those first ten minutes really suck you into it. 

When I found a seat in the dark theater I was beyond excited because as a very good, polite boy who would cry when he forgot to do a homework assignment, the visceral thrill of sneaking into a rated R movie was the equivalent of stealing a police car and crashing it. 

The film starts with Anderson’s patented shot looking directly above on a book being checked out at a library. Mark Mothersbaugh’s twinkly score kicks in before we go to the prologue. Alec Baldwin’s raspy but crisp voice starts its narration with, “Royal Tenenbaum bought the house on Archer Avenue in the winter of his 35th year.”

It was a piece of art that made me feel cooler for having experienced it and also made me realize the movies, music and books I liked before was just kid stuff. 

What follows is a five minute montage that elegantly sets up each of the Tenenbaum children, their divorced parents, and all of their broken dreams. I was being bombarded with things I had never seen before. Anderson’s impeccably detailed production design, deliberate camera pans and perfectly delivered dialogue, all while being scored to a cover of “Hey Jude”. I was enthralled, but the movie already had me at that library book.

As a teenager, you feel things with more FEELING, and Tenenbaums was the first movie that gave me all the feelings. Like listening to the Velvet Underground for the first time, or discovering Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, I could feel a whole new galaxy Big Banging into my brain. It was a piece of art that made me feel cooler for having experienced it and also made me realize the movies, music and books I liked before was just kid stuff. 

I knew that classics like The Godfather and Casablanca were considered CINEMA, but Tenenbaums was the first film I considered high class, capital “C” CINEMA that I claimed just for myself. I knew that loving this film meant I was a grown up with grown up tastes. I was three years away from a driver’s license. 

The point of no return came when Margo Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) steps off the Green Line bus to meet her brother, Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson). Time slows down, and Nico’s “These Days” starts playing while the two siblings who are still in love with each other (it’s ok-she was adopted!) walk toward each other. 

It’s easy now to be hardened against Anderson’s “slow-mo + lovely song = nice feelings” formula since he employs it like a nervous tick at this point, but in 2002, it made my jaw drop to the sticky movie theater floor. it made me say, “Oh…I think I’ll do this now for the rest of my life.”

Whatever “this” was I couldn’t articulate at the time, but I knew I wanted to be a part of whatever magic juice that was concocted that made it feel like a million butterflies were about to burst from my stomach. I quickly went from an awkward kid going through puberty to an awkward kid going through puberty who was also SUPER into movies. 

I began taking major film deep dives. Wes Anderson brought me to Harold and Maude which brought me to The Last Detail which brought me to the French New Wave and deeper and deeper from there. God bless the Criterion Channel (charter member, baby), but nothing beats making your dad drive you to the library so you can check out five Truffaut movies on DVD to watch over summer vacation.

Instead of going to the Catholic high school that many of my friends planned on going to, I pulled an audible and went to a public school because they offered TV & Film classes, and I heard that Baton Rouge native, Steven Soderbergh, went there. It turned out he went to a neighboring high school, but it was still a great school and one of the best decisions I ever made, mostly because I discovered other Wes Anderson fans there. 

In my liberal bubble of Chicago, I can’t throw a vinyl record without hitting a Wes Anderson fan in the face, but when trying to navigate High School in the South in the early 2000s, finding someone who liked his films meant I had found my kindred spirits. 

Along with my blossoming film snobbery, I also have to thank The Royal Tenenbaums for helping me refine my music tastes in those all-important teenage years. Before Spotify Discover playlists, there were Wes Anderson movies. I fell in love with Elliot Smith, Nick Drake, The Ramones, and Van Morrison all from this one movie. It was like striking oil in the middle of a gold mine.

The Royal Tenenbaums may be Anderson’s most bittersweet film, and it’s helped by Mark Mothersbaugh’s melancholy and innocent sounding score. It was the first time I was aware of a score and appreciated the artistry composers bring.   

Towards the end of High School I decided to go to film school where I and a generation of young people would rip off Wes Anderson’s movies in our own terrible short films, and from there, I decided to move away from the South to Chicago and make lots of money doing improv comedy (sometimes I make up to $5 a show!). 

This journey of terrible financial decisions began when I snuck into Royal Tenenbaums, and I have no regrets. Whichever artistic endeavors I decide to pursue from here, whether it’s directing music videos, writing pieces for this site, or writing screenplays that may (probably) never get made, I will always chase the feeling of watching Gwyneth Paltrow walk off a bus in slow motion.

The Royal Tenenbaums Trailer:

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