THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS
To twist around an old nugget in the pop culture lexicon, a Wes Anderson film is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get. Actually, I take that back--you can certainly count on watching a quirky and stylistically inventive comic romp populated by memorably eccentric characters. It's from there that springs a sprightly spontaneity that results in such wonderfully creative entertainments such as Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and now The Royal Tenenbaums.
It must be said right off the bat that Tenenbaums isn't quite as unconventional as Anderson's first two films, for this one can comfortably be described in a simple manner; it's about the dramas within a family, and the story leads to expectedly sweet messages of love and togetherness. But leave it to Anderson and writing partner Owen Wilson to put their own warped and complex spin to the proceedings. Royal (Gene Hackman) and Etheline (Anjelica Huston) Tenenbaum are a separated married couple once distinguished by their three genius children: Chas, a financial whiz; Richie, a tennis champ; and the adopted Margot, a distinguished playwright. But with adulthood came myriad disappointments and heartbreaks: Richie (Luke Wilson) retired from tennis after a humiliating loss and took to the seas; Margot's (Gwyneth Paltrow) writing career hit a stall and is now stuck in a passionless marriage to the much older neurologist/writer Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray); and Chas (Ben Stiller), while still successful, has become a paranoid safety freak and overprotective father to his two sons after his beloved wife was killed in a plane crash. For a number of reasons, each Tenenbaum child comes to move back home to Etheline, who herself is at a turning point: the family accountant, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), has proposed to her, meaning she'd have to finally divorce Royal. But that's easier said than done, especially after Royal announces he has only six weeks to live and moves back into the old family home as well.
The dry, droll wit of Anderson and Wilson (who also appears as Tenenbaum family friend Eli Cash, a successful author) could be taken as smug, but the true affection they have for their odd characters counters such a claim. For all their quirks and negative qualities, each of the characters is a fully realized person deserving at least of a sliver of sympathy: for all his shyster sliminess, Royal wants to regain the one thing that ultimately mattered to him; sullen and secretive Margot seeks a sense of belonging; Richie wants nothing more than for his unrequited love to be reciprocated; high-strung Chas just wants to protect his sons from the evils of blind chance--even a goofball like Eli is treated with some level of sensitivity; while his nasty drug habit is mined for some throwaway laughs, it isn't taken all that lightly in the end. That none of the individual characters, including more peripheral players like Royal's devoted servant Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), gets lost on the large canvas is also a credit to the peerless ensemble, led by Hackman's terrifically multi-textured performance as the well-meaning, wrong-doing patriarch.
As much of a showcase for the actors The Royal Tenenbaums is, it is foremost one for the ever-idiosyncratic vision of Anderson. The film unfolds like a novel, not simply in its richness of character but quite literally as a book. The first shot is of a book bearing the film's title being checked out of a library; title cards that resemble book pages denote chapter divisions; and the stream of events are strung together by florid, literary narration delivered by Alec Baldwin. But then Tenenbaums is more stunningly visual than the average film, particularly due to David Wasco's careful, colorful production design and Karen Patch's kooky, pitch-perfect costumes. Funny, smart, ceaselessly creative, and bearing more than a taste of the bitter and genuinely sweet, there's no m
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