ROYALLY MISANTHROPIC, SOCIALLY AWKWARD, isolated, ill-equipped and unable. These are the Royal Tenenbaums. Scene after hi-larious scene they prove that they have absolutely no conception of intimacy, or even what it means to get along with another human being. They are cruel, crude, crass, in near-constant excruciating personal pain and, oddly, unmistakably lovable.

But why? I think it’s because The Royal Tenenbaums is also this:

A man sits on his luggage, more alone than he’s ever been in his lonely life. He stares at the world through dark glasses, which along with his full and unkempt dark brown beard, tan leisure suit and personalized FILA accoutrements are his only real company in an otherwise solitary existence. Everywhere silence. As it goes on for more than three seconds, it seems to linger in a silent echo of his loneliness — almost in mocking reproduction of his current emotional state. Whispering, a Green Line bus pulls up about 20 feet in front of his luggage. Two people exit from said bus in silence, but when she steps into his world there is music. And not just a stark melody, but a rich, layered piece: first with a muted melody on arpeggiated guitar that is the color of her in slow-motion as she approaches. As she moves closer, an arrangement of strings, and a female baritone with an almost comic accent crooning about not doing too much talking these days. It is an aural end to his loneliness, a time when his life is orchestrated by his own desire to relate. His once-frustrated love finds voice — release — in an image of her; an image that is sonic as much as visual, as it describes in his own head the longing for another instrument to enhance his emotional arrangement.

It’s a cliché, I know. I Hear a Symphony and all that. But when it’s filtered through conduits as emotionally impenetrable as these characters, it becomes that much more relevant and profound. Makes me see the movie not just as a series of clever barbs and memorable lines that my friends and other groups of friends are quoting to groans weeks afterward, but about friendship and relationships in general — a kind of messy humanism that is available to even the most inhuman among us.


“I never understood her, I never understood any of us.” That’s Royal Tenenbaum, the patriarch and namesake of the film, having an untraditional heart-to-heart with his troubled son. His advice is not particularly helpful, but it gives insight, I think, into what the main characters in this fairly large ensemble cast have in common: They don’t get it. They may understand playwriting, international finance, accounting, archaeology, litigation, anthropology, pro tennis and the engineering of Dalmatian mice, but when it comes to understanding each other they are noticeably lost.

So noticeable, in fact, that to reproduce each isolated episode would be called a, um…script. It would also ruin the joke for any of you unfortunate enough to not have seen it yet. So instead, a few of the more memorable messes….

There’s Royal Tenenbaum, for starters, whose utter lack of sensitivity toward humanity is not just impulse, but philosophy. “It’s about puttin’ a brick through the other guy’s windshield. It’s about takin’ it out and choppin’ it up,” he opines in one of many scenes in which he plays the grandfatherly sage only to subvert it. “There are no teams,” he explains to the son he just shot with a BB gun, and most of the film’s comedic content relies on this principle. It’s similar in this sense to Charlie Chaplin’s The Fatal Mallet, of which one reviewer wrote in 1914: “This one-reeler proves that hitting people over the head with bricks and mallets can sometimes be made amusing.” Both are kinds of slapstick, and at the heart of both are bricks and mallets, cruelty and isolation. To be crass and remote is apparently sometimes hysterical, but it’s still — as Royal Tenenbaum proves in much of this film — crass and remote.

Not all of the characters in this film exemplify the exact same principle in the exact same way, but when it comes to a lack of understanding of the people they are closest to, it seems even the sweetest, most well-intentioned characters are not exempt. Take, for example, the film’s great romance between Etheline Tenenbaum and her accountant Henry Sherman, or the only marriage in the film to survive the opening credits: that of Margot Tenenbaum and Raleigh St. Clair. The lack of communication between these lovesick parties is present in absurdly large amounts. There is at least a tenderness between Etheline Tenenbaum and Henry Sherman, but it’s juxtaposed with a comic lack of understanding that threatens to overshadow it. For instance, Henry adds a marriage proposal to a comment about a tax issue to his friend and business partner, and upon seeing an Etheline befuddled, he adds, “You know I love you. Don’t you?” Of course she answers “no,” and, flattered and embarrassed, asks for time to think about his proposal. When she finally answers “yes” later on in the film, she announces that she hasn’t had sex in 18 years, which is in Henry’s mind his cue to initiate what is quite possibly the most awkward onscreen kiss in cinematic history. Sort of an anti-Rhett and Scarlett, they press smiles together like two nervous teenagers imitating what they saw last week on Felicity but never really understood. They are two people with an idea of intimacy, but no idea how to make it work in reality.

The couple that’s actually married in the film is separated emotionally and physically by a bathroom door. With the help of a very reliable lock, Margot Tenenbaum is able to keep almost everything about her personality from her husband and family, including a decades-old smoking habit, a nine-day former marriage and years and years of meaningless affairs. St. Clair is of course clueless, insisting on addressing her in the most familiar and affectionate terms, which only serves to emphasize the emotional distance between them. Their relationship is, at best, non-existent, and makes Royal Tenenbaum’s profession of ignorance resound.

There are other examples of this kind of ignorance in the film. Plenty, in fact. And while one could see The Royal Tenenbaums as a kind of The Fatal Mallet Part II, I think it would be more beneficial to viewers looking for the full scope of these characters to stop looking with their eyes and start looking with their ears.


When the man on the luggage — Richie Tenenbaum — first learns of the secret life of the woman on the Green Line — his adopted and beloved sister, Margot Tenenbaum — the orchestra disappears. It is replaced by solo acoustic guitar chords and a breathy Elliott Smith in what is perhaps the most desolate and disturbing scene in the film. More frustrated and alone than ever, Richie shuts himself in the bathroom and proceeds to rid himself of his hair. We see what Richie sees in the mirror and hear what he feels. The look is stark and pale, singular and desperate. The sound is the same. We hear no strings this time, but only Richie whispering to himself, “I’m gonna kill myself tomorrow,” before using his razor to open his veins. As the blood runs from his lacerated forearms into a porcelain sink, the solo guitar becomes more frantic. And as Richie slumps to the bathroom floor and nods off, so does the song.

As a minor musician, it’s hard for me not to contrast this scene with the other one, and formulate a theory about separate instruments representing separate people, and harmony of separate instruments the understanding that continually eludes the characters in this film. It’s like an ideal dance, where two separate people are no longer two separate people, but one melodious unit moving in time to the music. They understand each other so well that missteps do not exist.

As I’ve discussed at length, and as can be seen in even more hilarious detail by anyone who watches The Royal Tenenbaums, missteps do exist, and dissonance is the rule. That’s why it’s all the more satisfying when the Tenenbaums finally do get a clue. After the suicide attempt, the dissonance all but disappears, and the characters and the music begin to dance: the characters make a sincere effort to understand each other, and the music reflects that change. In one of the film’s final moments, as the camera pans from groups of characters reconciling and relating, a Mark Mothersbaugh original called Sparkplug Minuet plays in the background. Beginning with a solo piano, and being joined eventually by rich, harmonious layers of instruments as diverse as celeste, drums, guitar, violin and an accompanying chorus, this slow, stately dance marks one of the first times when all the characters shed their snakeskin and replace it with genuine compassion and understanding. It’s their first real dance.

As Cynical Bastard Number One, this kind of device in any other movie might have ignited my contempt and sent my feet towards the door. But the sheer volume of cynical bastards in this film moved me in a different way. I got to thinking that if things can work for them in all their inglorious glory, there might be hope for the rest of us as well. That maybe when I’m at my most misanthropic, and people at their most ugly and strange, I might suddenly hear music. And perhaps someday, I will dance.

Nah, fuck it. Assholes.

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bryson meunier lives and works in chicago as a search marketing manager/seo guru for resolution media. which means he knows what you’re searching for even before you ask.