Royal Tenenbaums, The

The same distinctive sensibility that informed Wes Anderson's first two innovative films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, is very much in evidence in his new serio-comedy, The Royal Tenenbaums, except that the scope is more ambitious, the budget bigger, and the cast more glamorous. With brief, wild strokes, the gifted Anderson paints onscreen a canvas of a three-generational dysfunctional family, headed by an errant, neglectful father (masterfully played by Gene Hackman), whose main wish is to reunite with the rest of his tribe before his presumably impending death.

Though Anderson continues to be a critics' darling, his efforts have not reached audiences beyond the arthouse circuit: Bottle Rocket (a Columbia pickup) was a festival favorite but seen by few, and Rushmore (Touchstone), his best and most coherent film to date, didn't even recoup its modest budget (about $15 million). New film's most exploitable marketing hook is its stellar cast that includes, in addition to Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anjelica Huston, ben Stiller, Bill Murray, Luke and Owen Wilson (the latter is Anderson's writing collaborator), among others. Regrettably, due to the film's literary format, stylized visuals, postcard-like framing, and particularly radically shifting tone (between scenes and often within the same scene), The Royal Tenenbaums will do better than Anderson's previous outings but it's not likely to be the big commercial breakout that distributor Touchstone was hoping for it holiday release (which had received its world premiere at the New York Film Festival).

The good news is that, despite his singular cinematic vision, Anderson, unlike most indie directors, doesn't repeat himself. Each of his three pictures flaunts a different narrative and distinct style. The bad news is that the format chosen for his new movie is literary: The family album unfolds as a book, divided into chapters, each flashed onscreen with its title, pages, and characters. End result is a vastly uneven movie that, like a massive novel, contains some brilliant episodes, but also some that are too clipped or too fake, though by design.

The Royal Tenenbaums renders a new meaning to dysfunctional family, a concept much used and abused in American pop culture of the past decade. The “literary adaptation” commences with Alec Baldwin's hefty narration, which introduces the large gallery of characters forming the clan and its associates: Father Royal (Hackman), wife Etheline (Huston), their two boys, Chas (Stiller) and Richie (Luke Wilson), and their adopted girl, Margot (Paltrow). The clan, particularly the kids, have been encouraged by their eccentric parents to cultivate their idiosyncratic gifts, never be ashamed of their unique attributes, such as Margot's missing finger. We also learn that Royal, a former litigator, couldn't embrace his paternal responsibilities and deserted his family.

Chas started buying real estate in his early teens, benefitting from an almost preternatural understanding of international finance. Margot was a successful juvenile playwright, winner of a prestigious $50,000 grant while only in the ninth grade. A junior champion tennis player, Richie was for three years in a row the winner of the US Nationals. Unfortunately, memory of all this brilliance was subsequently erased by betrayal, failure, and disaster, both natural and man-made, largely due to their father's fault.

Yarn then jumps ahead to 22 years later, finding Royal as a layabout (at one point he works as elevator operator) in his post-legal career, having been disbarred and serving time in prison. Royal's sole wish now is to reconcile with his family before it's too late, and to achieve that goal, he claims to be dying. His companion, Pagoda (Pallana), pretends to be his doctor, supplying alibi for all the incredible stories he invents about his various illnesses.

Meanwhile, separate (but officially undivorced) spouse Etheline, who's carried the family burden singlehandedly, is trying to forge a new life for herself with a new beau, Henry (Glover), her distanced bridge partner. After a long courtship, the reserved Henry pulls himself together and proposes marriage to the utterly shocked Etheline, a woman who, by her own admission, has not slept with any man in 18 years.

Main tale depicts the family's fables and foibles once all the children find an excuse to move back home. Royal's “rationale” for residing under the same roof is that he's got only six weeks to live, a ploy that he uses to prevent Etheline from marrying Henry. Parallel to the adult romantic triangle is a more youthful but equally problematic one. Margot, a gifted writer who hasn't produced a play in years, is near suicidal, locking herself in the bathroom with her pot and music.

Though married to a loving man, Raleigh (Murray), she advertently and inadvertently encourages romantic advances from her own siblings–and other men. Anderson's humor is wonderfully droll in dealing with the issue of whether or not these affairs are illicit or incestuous; Strictly speaking, Margot is not Richie's sister, and Royal gives his blessing.

It's impossible to do justice to the multi-nuanced, ever-shifting story and its persona. In its good moments, which are plentiful, The Royal Tenenbaums presents a tragic-comic critique of a clan of geniuses, with each member adept at a particular skill, but, as a result of an awful family life, each becomes ill-suited to deal with the kinds of problems most mature people have to contend with. Like Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, the new work is full of surprising warmth and charm, but even more so than the former films, The Royal Tenenbuams boasts an expansive plot replete with twists and turns, and droll characters who bounce off each other in refreshing, often shocking ways.

Throughout, Anderson demonstrates a tight control (perhaps too much) over every aspect of his production, from the writing to the staging to the overall visual design and pacing. Since the movie consists of numerous chapters, and multiple segments within each chapter, the performers are unable to develop much continuity, and it doesn't help that Anderson variegates the emotional tone from scene to scene, and has his cast face the camera directly, rather than each other, while delivering their lines.

Some viewers may also be upset by Anderson's treatment of his characters as both naive and savvy stooges, active yet passive people with “goals” to pursue, be it love, friendship, crime, or just notoriety. What the new film's characters share with those of helmer's earlier outings is a constant, inventive verbosity, not heard on American screen since Preston Sturges in the 1940s. Anderson's dialogue is smart but also deliberately contrived, decorated with a steady stream of deadpan and humor that occasionally feels forced, at least compared with his first pictures.

With the exception of disappointing turns by Murray (who was so brilliant in Rushmore) and Stiller, who's doing his usual shtick, all the other actors hit their marks, particularly Hackman, whose versatility seems to knows no bounds. Endowed with the meatiest role, Hackman provides the cement for an arduously tricky movie that might be too episodic and disjointed for its own good.

In a year of mostly bad or mediocre mainstream fare, it may be ironic to fault a film like The Royal Tenenbaums with being overreaching in its aspiration. But unlike Rushmore, an ultra-frank coming-of-age comedy whose inventive audacity was matched by a perfect technical execution and impeccable acting, the new movie is more ambitious and expansive, but also less fluent and smooth.

If Anderson wishes to appeal to a larger audience than the arthouse circuit, he may have to develop a more accessible style to present his intelligent ideas–or to rely on major stars, as he does here.

Perhaps the greatest compliment that could be paid to this genre-defying movie is that it's truly incomparable to any other Hollywood comedy or more accurately dramedy.


Runing time: 108 Minutes
A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation of an American Empirical picture.
Exec prods: Owen Wilson, Rudd Simmons
Prods: Wes Anderson, Barry Mendel, Scott Rudin
Screenplay: Anderson, Owen Wilson
Cinematographer: Robert Yeoman
Prod design: David Wasco
Editor: Dylan Tichenor
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh


Gene Hackman
Anjelica Huston
Ben Stiller
Gwyneth Paltrow
Luke Wilson
Owen Wilson
Danny Glover
Bill Murray
Seymour Cassel
Kumar Pallana
Alec Baldwin