The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

By February 7, 2012Sequence Breakdowns

Movie Genre: Comedy / Drama

Screenplay Time: 110 Minutes

Synopsis: The Tenenbaums are a family split apart by the actions of the family head, Royal Tenenbaum. When Royal’s estranged wife is engaged to a new man twenty two years after their separation, Royal Tenenbaum sets forth a devious plot to win Etheline and his family back: By pretending to be dying.

Sequence Note: As this story is told as if it is a novel, the Royal Tenenbaums in fact has 10 sequences: The traditional 8, plus a prologue and epilogue.

Sub-Plot Note: Because the film is a true ensemble film, a great deal of screenplay time is set-aside for the Sub-Plot.


World of the Story: Wes Anderson’s unique dialogue cadence and visual style is blended with a semi-modern view of an upscale New York borough mansion.

Introduce Protagonist (Anti-Hero/Seducer): ROYAL TENENBAUM (Gene Hackman) is the head of the Tenenbaum household. He’s a liar, a scoundrel, and a thief.

Introduce Supporting Character (Protector/Nurturer): ETHELINE TENENBAUM (Anjelica Huston)is the soft-spoken matron of the house.

Epilogue Obstacle: Royal tells their three children that he and Etheline are getting a divorce.

Introduce Supporting Character (Cynic): Their son CHAS (Ben Stiller) is a child genius in the field of business, he starts buying real estate in early teens. 

Introduce Supporting Character (Artist): Their adopted daughter MARGOT (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a child genius playwright.

Introduce Supporting Character (Recluse/Dreamer): Their other son RICHIE (Luke Wilson) is a budding championship tennis player and failing artist.

Introduce Sub-Plot: Richie’s in love with Margot.

Introduce Rival (Best Friend/Fool): Best friend of Richie, ELI CASH (Owen Wilson) lives across the street and yearns to be a Tenenbaum.

Epilogue Ramifications: Royal comes to the premiere of Margot’s first play starring all of the Tenenbaum children at the Tenenbaum house. He insults Margot’s play, calling it mediocre and is never invited over again.


Act I – Twenty-two years later


Dramatic Premise: Can a dysfunctional family ever forgive the cause of the dysfunction?

Royal’s Status Quo: Twenty-two years later Royal is being kicked out of his twenty-two year home, the Lindbergh Palace Hotel for not paying bills. He was a prominent litigator until late 80’s, went to prison, disbarred. Nobody in family has talked to him for 3 years.

Status Quo Obstacle: Royal doesn’t have any money or a place to live.

Richie’s Status Quo: Richie is retiring from Tennis after a horrible meltdown at a big tournament. He writes a telegram to Eli (now a renowned Novelist) and in it explains that he’s in love with his adopted sister Margot.

Margot’s Status Quo: Margot is married to an older psychiatrist, RALEIGH ST. CLAIR (Bill Murray). She secretly smokes (since she was twelve) and hasn’t completed a play in seven years.

Predicament: She doesn’t love Raleigh.

Chas’s Status Quo: Chas is widowed after he and his two sons survived a plane crash last summer.

Predicament: Paranoid Chas runs his children UZI (Jonah Meyerson) and ARI (Grant Rosenmeyer) through fire safety drills because he doesn’t ever feel safe.

Introduce Rival (Lover/Nemesis): HENRY SHERMAN (Danny Glover), widowed, wise, kindly, soft-spoken accountant of Etheline.

Etheline’s Status Quo: Etheline is now an Archeologist and in a ‘friendship’ with her accountant Henry Sherman. He asks her to marry him for ‘tax purposes’ but he actually loves her. She tells him she has to think about it.

Introduce Supporting Character (Mentor/Best Friend): PAGODA (Kumar Pallana) is Royal’s confidant working inside the Tenenbaum house.

Inciting Incident (Plot Point #1): After Pagoda calls and tells Royal of the pending engagement, Royal hatches a plan to win back Etheline and his family.



Protagonist’s Objective: Royal plans to trick everyone into loving him again.

Act II Obstacle: Royal needs a place to live.

Predicament Solution: Chas moves home to the Tenenbaum house because he doesn’t feel like his luxury apartment is safe.

Predicament Solution: Etheline visits Margot because she’s worried about her. Margot decides if Chas is moving home that she wants to move home too because she’s depressed as well.

Lock In (Plot Point #2): Royal approaches Etheline in the street and claims he wants to spend some time with the children because he’ll be dead in 6 weeks. We’re not sure if he’s lying because he keeps flip-flopping with Etheline after she breaks down crying. (00:21:03)

Montage: Everyone finds out about Royal’s stomach cancer. Nobody but Richie seems to care.

Sub-Plot Inciting Incident: Margot picks up Richie from the bus station. She loves him too but neither knows how to express it. They hug deeply.


Act II


Establish Act II Tension: Nobody wants Royal there, but they all feel somewhat sorry for him. Royal says in the next 6 weeks he plans to ‘set things right’ with everyone because they are all the most important parts of his life.

Predicament: Chas doesn’t want Royal around and doesn’t care that he’s dying.

Introduce Rivalry: Royal and Henry meet outside the house.

Sub-Plot Raise the Stakes: Eli and Margot drive around in car and Eli reveals to Margot that Richie wrote him a letter claiming he was in love with Margot.

Plant #1: Eli Cash picks up some drugs.

Predicament Solution: Royal visits Uzi and Ari at school against Chas’s will and tells the kids to ask Chas for them to meet, and lie and say they haven’t met him before. They visit Royal’s mother’s grave and Royal forgets that Chas’s wife is also buried there.

Flashback TV Scene: Through an old television set it’s revealed that Richie’s tennis career ended after he see’s Margot is in the crowd with her new husband. He can’t concentrate, loses the match, and retires early.

Predicament Ramifications: After revealing Chas is the one who got Royal disbarred by suing him twice for stealing money from Chas (Chas made a lot of money as a Minor) Royal asks Chas to forgive him. Chas doesn’t.

Sub-Plot Lock In: Richie visits Eli and is upset with him for telling Margot. Eli is tripping out on drugs.



New Act II Obstacle: Royal goes back to the hotel and all of his stuff has been boxed up. He is officially homeless.

Plant #2: Introduce a minor character, DUSTY (Seymour Cassel) a doorman at the hotel.

Obstacle Solution: Richie suggests that Royal come and live in the house. The family fights about it. Richie reveals that Royal is actually already living in Richie’s room on dialysis.

Ramifications: Chas tries to throw Royal out but he collapses.

Payoff #2: The doctor is Dusty in disguise.

New Act II Obstacle: Royal has to convincingly feign Cancer.

Raise the Stakes: Royal tells Etheline that he never stopped loving her but she doesn’t believe him.

Plant #3: After Etheline leaves the room, Henry see’s Royal eating a cheeseburger.

Sub-Plot Mid-Point: After Raleigh St. Clair shows up and tries to convince Margot to come home, Raleigh confides in Richie that he believes Margot’s having an affair. Richie gets very angry at the news she’s sleeping with someone else and they decide to find the guy and get him.

Action Sequence: Royal takes Uzi and Ari out swimming illegally in a YMCA; they jaywalk, jump horses, ride go-karts, throw water balloons at cars and steal stuff from a convenience store.

Predicament Ramifications: Chas is mad that Royal endangered the kids. He tells Royal to stay away from them.

Rising Action: Royal and Henry get in a big argument, and Etheline breaks it up. Afterward, Henry sneaks some medicine from Royal and calls the hospital.

First Culmination/Midpoint (Plot Point #3): Henry reveals in front of the whole family that Royal is faking about having stomach Cancer. Royal and Pagoda are kicked out.



New Protagonist’s Objective: Royal wants to re-connect with his family, for real this time.

Highest Act II Obstacle: Everyone is angry with Royal and wants nothing to do with him.

Royal’s New Status Quo: He’s completely broke and has to live at the YMCA.

Sub-Plot Ramifications: A Private Investigator photographs Margot and Eli meeting. Eli tells Margot he’s not in love with her anymore. The P.I. reveals to Raleigh and Richie that he believes Eli and Margot are a couple.

Obstacle Solution: Royal gets back into the Hotel by taking a job as an elevator operator.

Sub-Plot Main Culmination: Richie moves in with Raleigh and tries to commit suicide.

Rising Action: Royal arrives at the hospital and finds out that nobody wants to see him. He runs into Richie outside the hospital taking a stroll. Richie leaves on a bus back to the Tenenbaum house.

Sub-Plot Solution: Richie reveals to Margot that he loves her. Margot says she loves him too. They have to keep their love a secret.



Obstacle Solution: Richie visits Royal for advice about Margot.

Predicament Ramifications: Eli Cash is doing cocaine with some Egyptians. Richie comes over with Royal and Pagoda. They want to take Eli to have an intervention but Eli runs away.

Obstacle Ramifications: Royal and Margot have ice cream in an ice cream parlor but Margot’s not ready to re-connect.

Obstacle Ramifications: Royal goes to the cemetery after trying to get Chas to come.

Main Culmination/End of Act Two (Plot Point #4): Royal shows up cheerily with divorce papers and approaches Etheline and Henry. He tells them both congratulations, truly happy for them.




Act III Tension: Royal’s still not fully reconciled with the family when he arrives for Etheline and Henry’s wedding.

Payoff: While getting ready for the wedding, Chas comes to the realization that both he and Henry are widowers. They share that bond.

Payoff: While getting ready for the wedding, Etheline notices that Margot is chewing on a nicotine inhaler, trying to quit smoking.

Third Act Twist (Plot Point #5): Eli Cash races up in a car with his face painted like an Indian and crashes into the house. Royal saves Ari and Uzi. (01:32:12)

Action Sequence: Chas chases Eli, beats him up, and throws him over the wall. Eli and Chas both admit they need help. Chas cries because he’s had a rough year, and he and Royal re-connect.



Sub-Plot Resolution: Margot and Richie share a cigarette on the roof, both embracing their budding romance.

Character Arc: Etheline is finally ready to love again, she and Henry get married.

Character Arc: Margot’s new play is produced

Character Arc: Eli Cash checks himself into a rehabilitation clinic.

Character Arc: Richie starts to teach tennis to children.

Character Arc: Royal, Ari, Uzi, and Chas ride the garbage truck together.

Royal’s New Status Quo: His family forgives him.

Resolution: Royal has a heart attack. Chas rides with him in the ambulance and is the only witness to his death.



New Status Quo: The entire Tenenbaum clan attends Royal’s funeral and remembers Royal fondly. The dysfunctional family is re-united.