The film features an ensemble cast, including Anjelica Huston as Etheline Tenenbaum, Owen Wilson as Eli Cash, Luke Wilson as Richie Tenenbaum, Ben Stiller as Chas Tenenbaum, Gwyneth Paltrow as Margot Tenenbaum, Danny Glover as Henry Sherman, Gene Hackman as Royal Tenenbaum and Bill Murray as Raleigh St. Clair. Alec Baldwin narrates.
Chas is a math and business genius who creates a business in his teens selling specially mutated "dalmatian" mice to dealers in Little Tokyo. He also has money stolen from his personal safe deposit box by Royal.
Margot is the only adopted child of Etheline and Royal. Royal always mentions it when introducing her. Margot was awarded a $50,000 Braverman grant for a play that she wrote at a very young age. She invites Royal to a birthday party where her first play will be shown, and Royal tells her the plot is "just not believable."
Richie is a tennis prodigy and artist, but "failed to develop as a painter." He expresses his love for adopted sister Margot through many paintings, and also camps out in the African wing of the public archives, sharing a sleeping bag with her. Royal takes him on regular outings, to which neither of the other children are invited. Richie also has a hawk named Mordecai, which takes flight at the end of this montage. Eli Cash is the Tenenbaum's neighbor, and Richie's best friend. The action then skips ahead 22 years. Royal is kicked out of the hotel he had been living in for the past 22 years. All three of the Tenenbaum children are in a post-success slump. Richie is traveling all over the planet in a cruise ship following a breakdown at a tennis match, presumably hiding from the world. He writes a letter to Eli saying that he loves Margot.
Chas has become extremely overprotective of his two children, Ari and Uzi, following his wife Rachael's tragic death in a plane crash. Margot is married to a neurologist named Raleigh St. Clair, but soaks in a bathtub six hours a day. She hides her smoking habit - along with most of her past - from her husband. Raleigh performs tests on Dudley Heinsbergen (Stephen Lea Sheppard), researching a strange disorder he calls Heinsbergen syndrome. It involves elements of "amnesia, dyslexia, color blindness, and an extremely acute sense of hearing." The movie then cuts to Etheline's situation. Her accountant, Henry Sherman, proposes to her. Etheline has had many suitors since her separation from Royal, yet this is the first proposal she actually considers accepting.
Being kicked out onto the street, broke, homeless, and given the news that his wife, Etheline, is considering marrying her accountant, Royal devises a plot to convince Etheline that he has stomach cancer in order to win her back as well as the affections of his estranged children.
Etheline calls each of the Tenenbaum children, and for the first time in 17 years they are all living in the same house together. As soon as they meet, Royal discovers that things are very wrong in each of the children's lives. Chas has harbored hate against him for shooting him in the hand with a BB gun as a child (among other reasons). To Chas's dismay, Royal moves into the old house and sets up a large amount of medical equipment in Richie's room. Royal discovers that Chas is ridiculously overprotective of his children. He then decides to "breed a little recklessness" into Ari and Uzi. He takes them on outings involving swimming, horse riding, go-karting around town, shoplifting a convenience store, throwing water balloons at cars, riding on the back of a garbage truck, and dogfights. When he gets back, Chas takes him into a closet and berates him for endangering his children. When Royal shouts out, "I think you're having a nervous breakdown!" Chas steps out of the closet to avoid breaking his chain of denial.
Margot, on the other hand, has issues of her own. Eli, with whom Margot has been having an affair, tells her that Richie loves her. Later, Raleigh comes to check things out with her. Royal observes the two, and discovers that she has been cheating on Raleigh with Eli and objects to Margot's treatment of Raleigh. Raleigh has his suspicions, too. He talks to Richie (who also loves her) about it, and (although it is not shown in the movie) they hire a private investigator to spy on her. This forms a sort of "love quadrilateral." On the other hand, Royal starts to try to win back Etheline. Henry observes Royal eating a cheeseburger and decides to tell Etheline that he thinks that he may not have cancer. Royal starts using a variety of racial slurs to try to anger Henry. At one point, he calls him "Coltrane," and they start a fight over it. The fight is broken up by Etheline. Henry, suspicious, investigates Royal's supposed hospital, discovering it had closed years before and the doctor is an invention of Royal's. Henry then confronts Royal's partner in crime, Pagoda, and asks him how much Royal is paying him. Henry also discovers that Royal's cancer medication pills are just Tic Tacs in medicine bottles.
Henry picks an opportune moment, and tells the whole family that he knows that Royal can't have stomach cancer. He explains that it's extremely painful, and you can't eat "three cheeseburgers a day and fries if you have it." He also says that his past wife had died from it, so he would know what it looks like. Henry also mentions that the hospital he claimed to have been receiving treatment from is no longer operating. Having been discovered, Royal and Pagoda leave. Before he goes, Royal says that the past six days had been the best days of his life. Now even more broke than before, he and Pagoda get jobs as elevator attendants.
Richie and Raleigh then get the private eye report on Margot back. The following montage shows Margot at various points in her life: starting smoking, escaping from school, having a lesbian affair, getting married to a Jamaican recording artist for nine days, and having brief affairs with various men, including Eli Cash. Upon hearing the report, Raleigh says "So, she smokes." The news has a much more profound effect on Richie. He goes into the bathroom, shaves off his beard and most of his hair, calmly says "I'm going to kill myself tomorrow," and then slits his wrists, causing massive blood loss. Dudley finds him in a pool of his own blood, and Raleigh rushes him to the hospital. Soon after as the Tenenbaums sit in the waiting room, a visibly sad Raleigh acknowledges Margot's extramarital affairs in front of her and the family before leaving. Soon after, Richie escapes the hospital and meets with Margot. They share with each other their secret love.
Not long before, Royal and Etheline had signed the divorce papers making Etheline single. Henry and Etheline then plan their wedding. Before the marriage, Eli, high on mescaline and painted like an African priest, crashes his car into the side of the house. Royal saves the boys, Ari and Uzi, from being run over, but their dog Buckley isn't so fortunate. Eli flies out of the car, through a window. An infuriated Chas chases after Eli through the house, breaking Father Peterson's ankle during the chase. When Chas catches up to Eli, he wrestles with him, and damages Richie's eye as he tries to pull him off of Eli. Chas throws Eli over a fence and turns around to realize that he's the only one chasing Eli. He then climbs over the fence and lays down next to Eli. Eli realizes that his problem has risked the lives of two children and Chas tells him he needs serious help. During the aftermath, Chas recognizes that Royal saved his children from death, mending their relationship. Royal then buys a dalmatian from the firefighters that are at the scene for Ari and Uzi.
48 hours later, Etheline and Henry are married in a Judge's Chamber. Margot releases a new play based on her family, that gets fair attendance and mixed reviews with a snickering Royal among the audience, who is aware of the semi-autobiographical elements. Raleigh publishes a book on Dudley's condition entitled "Dudley's World." Eli checks himself into rehab somewhere in North Dakota. Richie starts a junior tennis program. Royal has a heart attack and dies quietly, at the age of 68. Chas is the only witness to his death, with the father and son having re-established their familial bond on Royal's deathbed. The funeral is small, but Royal's headstone reads "Died tragically rescuing his family from the remains of a destroyed sinking battleship." The movie closes with most of the characters walking away from the funeral to the tune of Van Morrison's Everyone.
The siblings of the Tenenbaum family are all highly intelligent and disillusioned, struggling with their own identities. They are loosely based on a rabble of similarly disillusioned siblings from the later books of famed author J.D. Salinger. The Glass family, composed of seven child-prodigy-turned-adult-misanthrope characters, is the central subject of three of Salinger's four published books, and form the basis for the quirky and unhappy Tenenbaum family, as director Wes Anderson revealed in an interview with Premiere magazine conducted in January 2001.
In one scene, Etheline Tenenbaum urges her daughter Margot Tenenbaum to get out of the bathroom. A similar scene takes up a large part of J.D. Salinger's book Franny and Zooey, when Bessie Glass spends quite a bit of time bothering her son Zooey Glass .
Some members of the Tenenbaum family are actually modeled after members of cinematographer Robert Yeoman's brother-in-law Walter Karnas' family. Certain small points of family members were exaggerated to make the character its own. The part of Royal Tenenbaum was written for Gene Hackman, but written after Walter Karnas himself. The same goes for the three Tenenbaum children, partially written after three of the Karnas children .
Etheline Tenenbaum, played by Anjelica Huston, was modeled after Wes Anderson's own mother. Anderson's mother similarly adopted archaeology after divorcing her husband. The glasses Etheline wears are actually Mrs. Anderson's. At one point during filming, Anjelica Huston asked Wes Anderson if she was, in fact, supposed to be playing his mother .
Two of the film's characters are thought to be modeled after popular culture icon Nico. The blonde hair and dark mascara of Nico is reflected in the styling of Margot Tenenbaum; additionally, Chas's son Ari shares a name with Nico's son. Nico's "These Days" and "The Fairest of the Seasons" are featured in the movie .
Ari and Uzi's beagle Buckley is a tribute both to singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley and, as a beagle, to the Peanuts character Snoopy. Buckley's replacement by a dalmatian named "Spark Plug" near the end of the film may be a homage to Peanut's creator Charles M. Schulz, who was given the same nickname by his uncle .
The name for the movie was inspired, in part, by longtime friend of Wes Anderson, Brian Tenenbaum, who has appeared in several of Anderson's movies in bit parts. In the Royal Tenenbaums he is one of the paramedics seen at the end of the film .
Henry Sherman is the name of Wes Anderson's former landlord. When the character of Henry Sherman is introduced in the film, he is standing in front of an apartment with a sign that says "H. Sherman - Landlord" .
According to Wes Anderson in the DVD commentary, the subplot in which Margot and Richie hide in a museum is a homage to the book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg. In the book, the characters Claudia and Jamie run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
"Needle in the Hay", a song by Elliott Smith, is heard during the scene in which Ritchie Tenenbaum attempts suicide by slitting his wrists. In a dark coincidence, Smith died in 2003 as a result of two stab wounds to the chest. Initially reported as a suicide, autopsy results were inconclusive.
There have been two soundtrack album releases for The Royal Tenenbaums. The first, in 2001, was well-received by most critics, though some songs were omitted; notably, Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard", Van Morrison's "Everyone", John Lennon's "Look At Me", The Mutato Muzika Orchestra's version of The Beatles' "Hey Jude" and two Rolling Stones tracks. Erik Satie's "Gymnopédie" was also used in the film, but never appeared on either soundtrack.
In 2002, the soundtrack was re-released with three songs not found on the 2001 release, but the two songs found in the film by The Rolling Stones ("She Smiled Sweetly", "Ruby Tuesday") were still not included on the soundtrack. This is because while The Rolling Stones allow their music to be used in films, they rarely allow their material to appear on any soundtracks. The soundtrack was also still missing the Van Morrison track, which served as the closing credits song in the film.