By Rob Blackwelder
Thick with director Wes Anderson's unique brand of laughing-on-the-inside irony, "The Royal Tenenbaums" is a bittersweet comedy of bourgeoisie dysfunction in a family of failed prodigies.
The Tenenbaum children each excelled so extraordinarily in their youth that life as adults might be disappointing even if being abandoned by their petulant, pejorative father (Gene Hackman at his grumpy greatest as Royal Tenenbaum) hadn't caused them all to crash and burn psychologically.
Pouty, introverted misery junkie Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) was an acclaimed playwright in 9th grade. But now in her early 30s, she's moving back home because ennui has taken over her mirthless marriage.
Hyperactively angst-ridden Chas (Ben Stiller) was a financial and real estate whiz in his teens. But his fortunes faltered, his wife died in a plane crash and now he's moving home too, with his two young sons in tow, because he's completely paranoid they'll befall some horrible accident in his high-rise condo. (In truth, Chas probably just wants his mommy.)
Once a three-time US Nationals tennis champ, Richie (Luke Wilson) is haunted by a completely different kind of failure. He choked in the biggest match of his life and locked himself away on an ocean liner to wallow in self-pity over his secret love for Margot -- who is adopted, although one gets the impression it wouldn't matter to him if she wasn't. When Margot moves home, Richie compulsively follows suit.
The only Tenenbaum who seems to be better off since Royal selfishly split is his wife Etheline (a caustically austere Anjelica Huston), who became her own woman and an archeologist while remaining malignantly angry at her absentee husband (they never divorced).
But now she's being pulled back in to old habits out of reluctant compassion when this already uncomfortable family reunion becomes a neurotic free-for-all. Royal, a disbarred lawyer who has bled his bank account dry living in a hotel suite for 22 years, begs to come home as well. He claims he has five weeks to live and wants to make amends.
Brilliantly oddball and awkwardly melancholy, "The Royal Tenenbaums" is a tightly layered comedy of the uncomfortable that peels away strata of peculiar humor in a myriad of rich details. Margot is missing a finger from an accident when she was a troubled teen. (Why wasn't it sewn back on? "Wasn't worth it," she shrugs.) Richie sleeps in a tent in his room, decorated with tennis trophies and Matchbox cars. Every Tenenbaum's fashion sense seems to have frozen in the moment he or she lost faith in life. In fact, their whole world seems to have stopped in its tracks. The house is full of rotary telephones and 30-year-old board games. The streets are full of rusty, smog-belching, 20-year-old taxis.
It's Royal's initially selfish, then later sincere and pitiful, attempts to fire the engines of the Tenenbaums' stilted relationships that fuel the plot of this eclectic, eccentric comedy.
Wes Anderson's talent for idiosyncratic filmmaking has matured by leaps and bounds between "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore," and now between "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums." He manages to stoke the movie such sympathy for these unfortunate nutcases that you truly feel sorry for them, even as you laugh at them. Even Royal -- who Hackman revels in making into an insensitive but charismatic cad -- becomes someone we commiserate with after his later, most earnest attempts at patching things up with his kids fails because he just lacks the heart to pull it off.
Joining the cast for a little scene stealing are a scholarly, bushy-bearded Bill Murray, as Paltrow's estranged husband, and oddball extraordinaire (and Anderson's writing partner) Owen Wilson, playing Chas's childhood best friend from across the street. Wilson takes the picture's irony to a whole new level, wishing so badly to be a part of the Tenenbaums that he blows his own success as a cowboy-wannabe hack writer on cocaine and porn binges.
Cleverly compartmentalized into chapters (introduced with book pages being read aloud by the voice of Alec Baldwin), "The Royal Tenenbaums" is so densely packed with dark chocolate quirks that it feels like a nimble adaptation of a 500-page novel. And like reading a favorite book, you could probably watch this film 10 times over and still discover different levels of its multifaceted wit with each viewing.
I recommend you start now.
Run time: 110 mins
In Theaters: Friday 4th January 2002
Box Office USA: $52.3M
Box Office Worldwide: $52.3M
Distributed by: Buena Vista Distribution Compa
Production compaines: Touchstone Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 80%
Fresh: 161 Rotten: 40
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Gene Hackman as Royal Tenenbaum, Anjelica Huston as Etheline Tenenbaum, Ben Stiller as Chas Tenenbaum, Gwyneth Paltrow as Margot Tenenbaum, Luke Wilson as Richie Tenenbaum, Owen Wilson as Eli Cash, Bill Murray as Raleigh St. Clair, Danny Glover as Henry Sherman, Alec Baldwin as Narrator (voice), Seymour Cassel as Dusty, Kumar Pallana as Pagoda
Also starring: Al Thompson
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