Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman): former lawyer. The patriarch, distant and boozing, treats his kids very inequally. Is separated from...
Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Huston): archeologist. Spent most of her early life schooling her three genius children...
Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller): Financial wizard. Went into business for himself at an early age selling Dalmatian mice. Had his father disbarred for stealing bonds out of his safety deposit box.
Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow): Playwright. Known for her secrecy (isn't that an oxymoron?). Hasn't written a play in years. Spends most of her time smoking in the bathroom.
Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson): Famous tennis player, known as The Baumer. Secretly in love with his adopted sister Margot. Very hairy and very sad.
Other important characters include:
Eli Cash (Owen Wilson): Richie's childhood friend. Now a famous author.
Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray): Margot's neurologist husband.
Henry Sherman (Danny Glover): The new object of Etheline's affection, also an accountant.
Pagoda (Kumar Pallana): The Tenenbaums' servant. He both saved and endangered Royal Tenenbaum's life.
The movie depicts Royal's attempts at getting closer to his family after failing to pay rent at the Lindbergh Palace Hotel. He fakes stomach cancer to gain their sympathy and access to the family home. Like most Wes Anderson films, it is marked with quirky sets and costumes, as well as much deadpan humor.A kind of sister movie to Wes Anderson's later project The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which has nearly identical cast and a similar (though much more dream-like) atmosphere.
Provides examples of:
Bi the Way: Margot's background file shows that she had many lovers, one of whom was a woman.
Big Applesauce: Despite taking place in New York City, Anderson went to great lengths to avoid any major landmarks. There's a scene earlier in the film - when Pagoda and Royal meet in Battery Park - in which Pagoda blocks the Statue of Liberty.
Bittersweet Ending: Royal manages patch things up with his family, even when it comes to light he doesn't actually have cancer. (He only say as such to get his family to talk to him). However he later dies of a heart attack.
Expy / Shout-Out: Word of God has it that Eli is a combined expy of authors Cormac McCarthy and Jay McInerney. Similarly, Margot's first husband - a Jamaican reggae musician named Desmond - is supposed to be reggae legend Desmond Dekker.
Film of the Book: The film's conceit is that it's based on a (nonexistent) best-selling book.
First Father Wins: Royal patches up his relationship with the kids, but doesn't remarry his ex though.
Handy Feet: A barefoot Margot uses her toes to turn a doorknob.
I Take Offense to That Last One: After a private detective reveals Margot's secrets, including numerous illicit affairs, Raleigh's first response is, "She smokes?"
Although it makes sense in the emotional sense of the scene, not only did Margot cheat on him, he never even found out that his wife of several years is a smoker, basically showing that he didn't know her at all.
Discovering his ignorance of this fact might particularly sting, considering that to observe behavior is mostly what Raleigh does for a living.
The fact that no one knows that she smokes is also something of a Running Gag.
Important Haircut: Richie cuts his hair and shaves in a detailed scene, and we're treated to one flash cut to his pre-shave appearance just before a suicide attempt
Limited Wardrobe: One of the few live action examples. Every Tenenbaums child has a uniform that doesn't really change throughout the film/their entire lives.
Chas then retires his (and his sons') when Royal dies.
Chas's retirement of his wardrobe is a sign of character growth: Word of God says that he dressed himself and his sons in bright red track suits at all times so that if there was an emergency in a crowded place, they could spot one another easily. By retiring this, it shows he's going to stop being so overprotective of his kids.
Love Dodecahedron: Margot is desired by no fewer than three men in the movie itself, and we see flashbacks to several other failed relationships.
Parental Favoritism: Richie is easily the favorite of the family. Royal told everyone he met Margot was adopted, and would introduce her as, "My adopted daughter." Chaz had money stolen from him by Royal several times, usually by way of Royal have contorl over his businesses while he was still a minor, and seems to harbor the most resentment to his father in adulthood. Richie got along well with Royal, who took him to (admittedly seedy) places around the city. When Royal comes back, Richie is the only one who hits it off with him right away, although Royal is a bit disappointed Richie lost his famous match (due to having placed a large bet that he'd win).
Present Day Past: The Tenenbaums are still stuck in the Seventies, their Glory Days. The soundtrack and their fashions reflect this.
Pretty in Mink: Margot. She always seemed to have a mink coat she would wear whenever she felt like it, even as a girl.
Real-Life Relative: Richie and Eli who desperately wanted to be a Tenanbaum are, of course, real-life brothers.
Shout-Out: A brother and sister living in a museum (hiding inside, at night) is more-or-less the plot of E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Minus the Squick, as it was a children's novel. Another literary reference: a character in J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey is endlessly in the bathtub, smoking. Wrong gender, though, to be like Margot. However, given the prominence in Salinger's fiction of child prodigies—and Manhattan as a setting—it seems unlikely to be coincidental.
Take That: Peter Bradley, the talk show host who interviews Eli badly, is based on Charlie Rose. (The Criterion edition DVD of Rushmore has among its bonus features Charley Rose interviews with Wes Anderson & Bill Murray. During the course of both interviews, Rose repeatedly states the main character's motivation as wanting his face on Mount Rushmore.)
Teen Genius: All three Tenenbaum children are subversions/deconstructions.
The Unfavorite: Margot, who is never allowed to forget that she's adopted, and that she's not a "real" member of the family.
Two Decades Behind: One can be forgiven for assuming the film takes place in the late '70s or early '80s, until the year "2001" is shown on Royal's tombstone.
Walking the Earth: Or sailing the Earth, which Richie did after he learned Margot was married.