The Royal Tenenbaums from Memory
The camera zooms in on a music box shaped like a Victorian house. A twinkly midi-file of “Stephanie Says” by the Velvet Underground plays, seemingly from the house itself. The music box morphs into a real house on a Greenwich Village street, next to homes of similar stature. The screen wipes as if a page turns, to a lavishly decorated high-ceilinged room, obstructed by a foregrounded collage of objects from the 1950s or 1970s: typewritten pages, a feather, a red white and blue terrycloth wristband, a hardcover book titled The Illustrated Great Gatsby for Children, a briefcase, a tennis racket.
“There once was a family who lived in New York City. They were known as the Royal Tenenbaums, after the family’s patriarch, Royal Tenenbaum,” says a voice. This narration appears word-for-word on a typewritten page of the collage, whose focus diminishes as the camera zooms further into the room.
In the room is a magically chandelier-lit tent, where a little boy and girl lay side-by-side.
“Here I am with my sister, Evelyn. She’s adopted. She’s the only person who understands me. I’m in love with her but it might be incest, technically,” says the voice.
Evelyn pulls back her sleeve to show the boy cuts on her wrists. He pulls back his sleeve to show her cuts on his wrists. They roll onto their backs to display perplexed, pained faces. The girl, who looks about nine years old, lights a cigarette. “Stephanie Says” is still playing. It continues over shots of the boy and girl throughout time: chasing each other with taxidermized animals and drug paraphernalia, reading adult books in the tent, almost kissing. The boy always wears a blazer and a headband. The girl always wears a fur coat, and a barrette in her distinctive blonde bob that lifelessly hangs from her head. Another boy in a red Adidas track suit, who also always wears this, studies law books alone, angrily.
“This is my brother, Sharpei. We don’t get along because my dad likes him more than me, but he thinks my dad likes me more than him.”
Seven unruly dogs on leashes pull Sharpei down the stairs. Gene Hackman’s off-camera voice yells, “Sharpei! Shut those bastards up!” The camera moves sideways to a room where it’s clear Royal’s comment has just interrupted an argument with his wife, Vespa, played by Angelica Huston, who rests her forehead on her hand and looks at the floor, conveying some futility and shame to an unseen audience as she shakes her head “no.”
“They weren’t even our dogs,” the voice says, “they were a goodbye present from our dad.”
A typewritten page at the bottom of the screen displays this text: “They weren’t even our dogs; they were a goodbye present, from our dad.”
The page of the screen turns to Royal in a three-piece suit and thickly rimmed glasses, sitting in a waterless bathtub. Books cover his legs. Stained and peeling fleur-de-lis wallpaper decorates a room smaller than every room we’ve seen thus far, a room that is mostly book piles. A rotary phone rests on a table next to the bathtub. Royal grumbles something about hating his life. He makes a sound like “Gnaaaah!” He picks up the phone and barks into it, “Masala!”
The camera swipes sideways to a short Indian man in a bellhop uniform, seemingly caged in a telephone booth. He picks up the phone.
“Masala, I’m going to die. Get the car ready!”
Masala rolls his eyes. “Very good, Mr. Tenenbaum.”
Royal rolls up to the music box house in Greenwich Village. Inside, Vespa and Borneo, played by Danny Glover, hold hands over a desk covered in divorce paper drafts. Borneo’s eyes well with tears.
“My research is going well these days,” he says.
“These Days” by Nico starts playing.
“I wish you wouldn’t say that,” says Vespa.
“Why don’t you just sign the papers?”
“You know I can’t.”
Just then, Royal busts through the door.
“What is this shit,” he barks.
Borneo stands alert. “Mr. Tenenbaum. Pleasure to see you, as always.”
Royal regards Borneo spitefully.
“Darling, I’m dying,” Royal says to Vespa.
Her face becomes one of complex tenderness, horror, sorrow, and anger. “What…?”
“Terminal illness. I got like three or something weeks to live. Figured you’d want to know.”
“This is just another one of your schemes to bring us together, Royal Tenenbaum. I won’t have it.”
“I think I–maybe I should leave,” says Borneo.
“What’s he doing here?!”
The camera moves to a noodly mouth-breathing teenager in short shorts, picking his nose in the corner.
“I’m conducting research on a disorder affecting young men,” Borneo brusquely says. “I think it would be wise, at this juncture, if you sign your divorce papers and let Vespa get on with her life.”
Royal snorts. “I don’t like this one bit. No sir, not one bit. This is making me feel kind of racist.”
The adult Sharpei, played by Ben Stiller, wears the same red Adidas tracksuit as his sons, Jarmusch and Agar. The trio silently carry boxes with pointed aggression to a parked moving van. Seven dogs are leash-tied to a fire hydrant near the van. Royal approaches the dogs and they lunge.
“Hey, good boys, good boys,” he says, trying to pet the dogs. “What, you don’t remember dear old dad?”
Sharpei shakes his head. “Those aren’t even my dogs, Royal. You left them with me.”
“Hey, is that any way to talk about a present? Now tell me, who are these little fellas?”
“Go upstairs, guys. Now. NOW,” Sharpei orders his sons, who shrug and do as told.
Royal delivers the news of his impending death.
“I don’t have time for this, Royal, I’m a lawyer! That’s right, I grew up to be a lawyer! And in case you didn’t notice, I’m in the middle of a bitter divorce. Save your sad stories for Tony. You always liked him the best.”
On a rooftop, a profile shot of Tony, played by Luke Wilson, thoughtfully winces at the skyline. He wears the blazer and headband uniform of his childhood. An eagle is perched on his shoulder. He unfolds a photo of Evelyn and him. Royal opens the door to the roof. The eagle flies away. Tony tries to casually shove the photo in his pocket. “Oh, hey Dad.”
“Son, I have some bad news. I’m going to die. Soon,” says Royal.
“Die? As in, death?”
“Yes, I’m afraid it’s true.”
“I’d like to spend as much time with you as I can.”
“They say I have about three weeks, to live.”
“Wow, that’s not very long. Yeah let’s get together sometime.” Tony winces at the skyline again. “I think if Evelyn had been at my last tennis match, I would’ve won. I wonder why she didn’t come.”
“You still talk to Evelyn,” asks Royal, offended.
“Not really, but you should. She’s your daughter. Kind of.”
“Yeah. Kind of,” says Royal.
An adult Evelyn, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, smokes a cigarette in a bathtub. Next to her on a small table are a rotary phone, full ashtray, and framed picture of Tony playing tennis. Her distinctive barretted hairstyle hasn’t changed. She looks troubled and cold, and we get the sense she always looks this way. Just as she reaches to make a phone call, the phone rings.
“Evelyn. It’s me, Tony.”
“I was just going to call you.”
“That’s wild. I can’t stop thinking about you.”
“Me neither. I don’t think we should talk, though.”
“I guess you’re right.”
Their faces look pained, the way they did in the tent when they were little.
“Hey, Evelyn, did Royal give you the news?”
“He’s going to die soon.”
“I really want to see you.”
Evelyn sighs. “I have to go.” She hangs up and, although she is alone, looks around suspiciously before lighting another cigarette. “Things Nobody Knows about Evelyn” in a heavily scripted font wipes across the screen. “Jackie Is a Punk” by the Ramones plays over a montage of Evelyn smoking cigarettes throughout childhood and adulthood, sleeping in a dumpster, flying an airplane, kissing a nude woman, marrying a Caribbean man, giving birth, leaving her new family, filing for divorce, passing the bar exam.
Harpsichordish midi-file instruments play something adjacent to chamber music. This is the film’s score. Tony’s eagle, Vladimir, bites the lock of his rooftop cage, grabs a rolled paper with his talons, and flies over New York City. The camera follows Vladimir, drone-like, viewing the streets through his perspective. He perches on a window of the Tenenbaum house, where inside Borneo is on his knee, proposing to Vespa, who tearfully refuses. He perches on the window of Sharpei’s childhood bedroom, which has been turned into an exercise room, where Sharpei, Jarmusch and Agar run on three treadmills in a line facing an enormous 1970s TV that airs a news clip of Tony playing tennis.
“Fuaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhccccckkkkkkkkkkkkkk!” Sharpei yells, muffled by the window glass.
Vladimir takes off for the street. He releases the paper from his talons as he lands next to an old beggar, who appears oddly unfazed–even cheerful–about being on the street. The beggar looks like he’s from India but wears a Native American headdress. He unrolls Vladimir’s paper, a months-old article with the headline: “Tony Tenenbaum Loses U.S. Open, Father Files Bankruptcy?” Vladimir ruffles his feathers and one, with a sharp quill point, falls out, along with an inkwell. In flawless cursive script, the beggar writes:
You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.
He hands the paper to Royal, who has been watching this entire time, out of camera.
Royal reads the note.
“Crock a shit,” he mutters. He walks out of the shot and Masala follows him with a boom microphone. Seven unruly barking dogs follow them, dragging their leashes.
After much protest, Sharpei agrees to let Royal spend time with Jarmusch and Agar. “Me and Julio down by the Schoolyard” plays over a montage of Royal and his grandsons booking bets for an impromptu seven-dog race in Central Park, withholding the winnings and running from angry strangers, Jarmusch and Agar beating Royal at tennis, Royal punching a hotdog vendor, a pregnant woman kicking Royal, a monkey perching on Royal’s shoulder, Jarmusch and Agar gleefully throwing rocks at the monkey, and the trio stoning the monkey until it dies. Paul Simon’s jaunty acoustic guitar outro plays as Royal brings the kids home to Sharpei, who sees how happy they are, and shoots a look of hesitant acquiescence at Royal.
Just then, Royal grasps his stomach and begins convulsing. Masala pulls up in an ambulance and rushes him to the hospital. Vespa, Tony, Sharpei, Agar, and Jarmusch come to his side.
“See, guys? I wasn’t lying. How could I fake stomach cancer?”
Masala, dressed as a doctor, approaches Royal’s bed with a big hoagie.
“You shouldn’t eat that in your condition,” Vespa accuses.
“The doctor says I can eat whatever I want!”
Everyone groans. Tony calls Evelyn from a hospital payphone. She picks up, still in the bathtub.
“Hi. I’m thinking a lot about my last tennis game. I’m bummed that you weren’t there.”
The page of the screen turns to Tony, losing his fated match. Commentators remark on how he’s playing the worst game of his career. “He keeps looking into the audience,” one says, “like he’s wishing someone he loved were watching him.”
“I’ll show you a thing or two about ‘tax deductible,’ gnaaaaaah!” The camera locates Royal screaming into a portable rotary phone in the otherwise silent crowd, and zooms in as he continues, “the way I see it, I’m the one putting your kids through college–for no services rendered from you, my friend!”
The ball Tony was supposed to hit clocks the back of his Royal-facing head. He falls to the ground.
The page of the screen turns to Tony at the hospital payphone.
“Maybe we could run away somewhere, just you and me,” he says.
“I really don’t think so.” Evelyn hangs up. For a few moments it’s quiet in the bathroom, except for the near-palpable disturbance of her psyche. Someone taps at the window. It’s the beggar, with Vladimir on his shoulder. Evelyn shrieks out of the tub and hurriedly covers herself with her fur coat. Breathing fast, she approaches the man. They lock eyes. His expression is at once stoic and urgent as he holds up a handwritten message: Jumping Jack Flash plays with fire. Go to the Champs-Élysées before the candle burns out.
The candle atop Evelyn’s toilet extinguishes. She gasps, then regards it in wonder. She uses her cigarette to relight its wick.
Tony faces the mirror of his inexplicably fluorescently lit bathroom. The light flickers as he shaves his beard and head, while “Needle in the Hay” by Elliott Smith plays. Scenes from his recent and distant past–hair falling into the sink, missing the ball, Royal projectile vomiting on him during their limo home from the U.S. Open, nostalgically lit slow-motion shots of Evelyn, Vladimir escaping his cage–flash as if products of the light. He cuts his wrists deeply. Blood splatters the mirror. Evelyn walks in the bathroom. “Needle in the Hay” abruptly stops with her scream. Another ambulance rushes Tony to the hospital.
Every family member but Royal attempts to visit him in the hospital, but attendants refuse to give them information. It’s unclear if Tony even survives. I only remember three scenes after this.
Back at the Tenenbaum’s, Crash Bandicoot, played by Owen Wilson, sits at the kitchen table. He’s wearing a cowboy hat.
“You know,” he says in a vaguely southern drawl, “I always considered myself a part of this family.”
“Crash,” Vespa says with a warm sadness, “I did too.”
“Did you know I used to mail my report cards to you, when I was in high school?”
“Yes. I did know that. You and Tony were such good friends.”
On a small countertop TV, Charlie Rose interviews Crash. They both wear cowboy hats.
“Wait, wait, shhhh! My interview is on,” Crash says, “you’re gonna love this, Vespa.”
Charlie Rose asks a long serious question about Crash’s recently published book, Custer’s Last Stand. Crash squints and nods, at first appearing to consider the question, then it’s clear he’s lost in another thought. He makes a whispered growling sound like “rrraaahhhhrrrr” and waves his hand as if it’s a bird’s wing in flight. He repeats a variation of the sound.
“What’s that, Crash?” asks Charlie Rose.
“Rrraaahhhhrrrr. Fahr-bird. Firebird. Rrraaaahhhrrrrrrrrrrrr.”
Vespa looks at Crash with concern. “Were you on…drugs, for this interview, Crash?”
“Maybe,” he says. “Maybe.”
“Are you on drugs right now?”
With a totally detached finesse of efficiency, Masala juggles preparing a dumpling dish and rubbing Royal’s feet in the book-filled hotel room. We see the room only has one window, far in the background. “Can’t you see I’m in pain, Masala? My family hates me,” Royal says.
“Yes, Mr. Tenenbaum.”
“No one cares if I’m sick, but everyone’s in hysterics when Tony pulls a stunt. Probably all it is, a stunt! ‘Where’s Tony, Where’s Tony, boo hoo-hoo-hoo.’ Boo hoo! That kid’s nothing but a washed-up deadbeat liar. Hasn’t returned a single one of my calls from his king-sized hospital bed. Wait, has he?”
“No, Mr. Tenenbaum.”
“That’s what I thought. Something must be done.”
As if in the peripheral vision of the camera, Vladimir’s flight is stopped by the window, accompanied by a loud thud. Royal startles and Masala wipes sweat from his brow. The crash left a crack in the glass. A glimpse of something like inspiration flashes on Royal’s face. He dons slippers and runs to the street, where Vladimir stands unscathed next to an unfurled scroll. Masala runs to the kneeling Royal, who squints to read the paper. Masala hands Royal his glasses. Now he can see what it says, but this remains unknown to the viewer. Snowflakes fall in front of Royal’s definitive nod, in a close-up.
“That’s it, Masala. I’ll show them what it’ll feel like if I really died.”
A midi-file rendition of “Hey Jude” plays as Vespa welcomes in Borneo, Sharpei, Agar, Jarmusch, Masala, Crash, and Evelyn to the Tenenbaum’s foyer, which is fuller than we’ve ever seen it, with artistic-looking high society members wearing all black. The camera, Vladimir-like in its continuous soaring shot of the home’s rooms, picks up snippets of conversations between guests, most of whom aren’t sure if they’re attending Tony’s or Royal’s funeral. In the background of a room the camera zooms past, Bill Murray tends bar in a tuxedo. The home’s Christmas décor feels neither appropriate to the holiday’s celebratory mood, nor the disparate concerns of the funeral guests, who seem mostly confused, inconvenienced, and pressed for time.
Crash pulls Evelyn aside.
“I’m sorry it had to be this way,” he says.
“What? Are we doing this for Tony?!”
“No, I mean–well actually, I don’t know? Look, what I mean, Evelyn, is: I’ve thought a lot about what happened between us, over the years.”
The camera’s page turns to Crash and Evelyn in a hotel room cluttered with old room service trays and plates of white powder. “Jackie Is a Punk” plays again, over shots of their bodies moving under sheets, jumping on the bed, exchanging maniacal looks before throwing handful after handful of green bills out the window, contemptuously arguing, pointing guns at each other, Evelyn donning her fur coat and slamming the door, leaving Crash alone. The page turns back to the funeral.
“Oh. I haven’t thought about that at all,” Evelyn says.
Just then, a coffin hurtles through the wall, leaving a huge hole and dust cloud. Everyone is stunned, motionless. Bricks fall from the hole, onto the hood of a car that’d carried the coffin in its trunk. The car’s engine steams and clicks. These are the only noises in the room. The coffin’s lid opens from the inside, by the hand of a dusty-looking Royal. He clambers to his feet, hack-coughing and laughing.
“Gotcha! You should see the looks on all your faces. Listen, I had to do this to bring the family back together. There was no other way. Vespa, I think you should marry Borneo. He’s a good guy.”
Sharpei runs to Royal, hugs him tightly, and says, “I’m so glad you’re alive, Dad.”
“I’m glad you called me Dad, finally. It took a lot, but I got you to do it.”
“Where’s Tony,” demands Evelyn.
“Tony? That little shit drove me here!”
Tony emerges from the driver’s seat of the car, smiling goodheartedly–a bit bashfully. His hair is growing back, and his wrists are bandaged.
“Sorry about the wall, guys. I must’ve jumped the curb or something, on the way in.”
Evelyn bounds to embrace him. Vladimir flies through the hole in the wall and perches on Tony’s arm.
“Vladimir! You came back,” Tony beams.
Borneo kisses Vespa. He pulls divorce papers and a pen from his back pocket. “I always kept these with me, just in case.” Everyone laughs. All other funeral guests have mysteriously left. “Hey Jude,” this time performed by the Beatles, plays over the now-muted Tenenbaums, who take turns embracing and patting each other on their backs. The camera zooms out of the hole in the house, to the house itself–which morphs into a music box again, along with all the brownstones on the street–to a shot of the New York City skyline, and finally the sky itself. The voice from the beginning returns, and quick scenes sync with its narration:
“Vespa and Borneo got married indeed, and it was a beautiful ceremony. Royal died a few days later, holding Sharpei’s hand. Agar joined the circus, and Jarmusch was adopted by a champion Greyhound breeder. Crash finally got off the drugs. And as for me and Evelyn?”
“The Fairest of the Seasons” by Nico plays.
A dreamy, golden-lit Evelyn opens a car door and walks in slow motion towards the camera, which she looks directly into, smiling for the first time in the film. Tony stands somewhere behind the camera. Still in slow motion, he walks to meet her, and they kiss with tongue. Near the car, the beggar, now clad in Masala’s bellhop uniform, alternates between fatherly nods and unheard joyous hoots at the pair. He clasps his hands, raises them over his head, and shakes them in a gesture of triumphant praise. All in slow motion.
“The Fairest of the Seasons” plays into the credits.
The final cast credit is “Bill Murray - As Himself.”
Megan Boyle is the author of a poetry collection called selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee, a novel called LIVEBLOG, and many articles and stories published online and in print. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and was born in 1985.