Written by Anderson and supporting-cast member Owen Wilson, The Royal Tenenbaums tells the story of the Tenenbaum children Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), Chas (Ben Stiller) and Richie (Luke Wilson), who grow from child prodigies into depressed, disillusioned and ultimately unsuccessful adults. This ‘downfall’ is charted through the children now in adulthood grouped together by their estranged father Royal (Gene Hackman), who claims to be dying of cancer after decades apart, and comparisons from their current lives to flashbacks of their success as children. Without their mother Etheline (Anjelica Huston) and her guidance and assurance, the children have failed to live up to everyone’s expectations of them, and returning back to the family home signals their own admittance of their failure as adults. As Margot Tenenbaum exclaims when she learns her brother has returned home; ‘why is he allowed to do that?’, almost as if one is not allowed to admit defeat in adulthood, whether this is in society in general or just to their own parents. Within the family, the children were given a sense of identity, perhaps given to them by the media who dubbed them child geniuses, or the isolation and security within the family with child each more successful and intelligent than their peers. Within the family household, the children were able to relate to one another without the difficulty of interacting or relating to children their own age who were not excelling at such a level. However, this isolation has made the Tenenbaum children expect a bright and successful future, and when this life hasn’t developed they are left disillusioned, depressed, and isolated from the world that includes their siblings, because one would never wish admit to another that they weren’t still a success.
Chas is the first of the Tenenbaum children to return home. As a child, Chas excelled with maths and became a successful business entrepreneur at eleven years old. Now an adult, we are unaware of his current career, which takes a definite backseat to his obsessive protectiveness over his two sons Ali and Uzi after the death of his wife Rachael, which involves constant late-night fire drills and evacuations. This clearly indicates he is yet to move on from his wife’s death, becoming morbidly obsessed with the safety of his children and letting it rule over his (and their) lives. Once being able to conduct meetings and control business transactions, and then losing that control when his spouse passes away, he aggressively tries to regain some control over the world around him by meticulously preparing the boys for what he sees as eventual unavoidable disaster. Unable to cope with the responsibility to constantly protect his sons, he returns to the family home before news of his father’s illness.
Margot is the only child who is not biologically a Tenenbaum. Adopted at age two, her father Royal constantly reminds her and others that she is adopted, even introducing her to strangers as ‘my adopted daughter Margot’, and not allowing her to visit her grandmother because she ‘isn’t (her) real grandmother’. Though we may think society or outside influences have pressured the Tenenbaum children to grow up before their years, Royal definitely encourages this view of themselves, perhaps forgetting they are children at all. This manifests itself in the way he interacts with them, for example when he plays as team mate to Chas in a BB-gun shooting game, he shoots Chas in the hand, proclaiming ‘there are no teams!’, and critiquing a play Margot had written for her siblings to perform on her eleventh birthday as harshly as if it were a serious production. If the children ever indulged in typically ‘childish’ behaviour they were ridiculed by their father, or if they did not achieve above and beyond their age-appropriate level they were not praised by him, thus forcing the children to grow up and invest their entire childhood into adult pursuits to please their father and ‘earn’ his love. This is also signaled in how the children dress once they are adults, i.e. exactly the same as they did when they were adolescents.
With the constant reminder of her adoption, Royal makes it clear that for Margot his love is unattainable, and does his best to keep her on the outside of the family dynamic. This upbringing makes Margot incredibly secretive – she gains the power she has through closing people off and being distant, and from people – even those closest to her – being unable to pinpoint her. We see this in how she is described as being ‘known for her secrecy’, and the montage of Margot’s life that details what her husband Raleigh (played by Bill Murray) discovers when he hires a private investigator to finally gain some power in their relationship and try to bridge the gap between him and his ever-distant wife.
In constrast, the last of the Tenenbaum children, Richie, has learned how to be his father’s favourite child. Where Chas is untrusting and full of anger, and Royal refuses to relate to a child who is not biologically his, Richie embraced the fortune and success of his childhood which lead to him being a successful adult, and made him a trophy child for his father when his other children sank into depression and obscurity.
This comes to a head when Richie becomes aware that his simple desires cannot be realised. He has fallen in love with his sister Margot, and soon after her marriage to Raleigh he has a severe nervous breakdown which destroys his successful tennis career, realising though his feelings for Margot may be reciprocated, they can never be together. He becomes a recluse, travelling the world on a closed ship, only returning to land on the news of his father’s illness. He and Margot somewhat rekindle their relationship, spending all of their time together and almost simulating what a romantic relationship with his sister might be like (since her husband is absent). When Raleigh hires an investigator on Margot, Richie learns of her history of sexual promiscuity and her secret marriage. This acts as a second ‘break up’ – though he and Margot were never together, Richie became in denial that they never could be, until she was married, when he was forced to recognise this and had a breakdown. Slowly recovering, he is reunited with his sister, and the idea of them being together is again planted in his head, especially on learning about the difficulties in Margot and Raleigh’s marriage. Having this idea destroyed once more becomes overwhelming for Richie, and leads him to attempt suicide.
Royal’s illness is the only thing that brings this fractured family together, and we soon discover Royal has feigned illness and is completely healthy. Once learning this was a ruse, the family fall apart again, but not completely. They also show they understand their nostalgia for their childhood. Margot writes her first play in years, which was her chosen career path as a minor, and Richie starts a junior tennis program. Royal dies not long after the family move away from their mother’s home, and they are brought back together to attend the funeral. We see the family leaving together, showing that perhaps the family have grown back together, and are not as fractured as they were at the beginning of the film. They have all finally shown their vulnerability to once another, and no longer are trying to over-achieve above their siblings. All three children have admitted defeat, and can now start to work on rebuilding their lives – together.