For his third feature film, writer/director Wes Anderson reveals further proof of his highly original comic talents. Sweet and funny, "The Royal Tenenbaums" attempts to capture on film an anthropological wonder: the ultimate dysfunctional Upper East Side Manhattan family.
Building on the skills and oddball sensibilities present in his much-acclaimed previous movies, "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore," Anderson not only makes us laugh at the Tenenbaums, he makes us care. His ability to inject an emotional heft to the humor is something most mainstream directors don't even think about, much less attempt.
But that's not to say this tale of a temporary familial reconciliation, after "two decades of failure, betrayal and disaster," doesn't flirt with the boundaries of preciousness. Anderson has a propensity for the too-precious twist that often threatens "Tenenbaums'" quirky scenario and deadpan style.
For this intimate portrait of the eccentric Tenenbaums, Anderson has assembled a sublime cast. Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston play Royal and Etheline Tenenbaum, whose three children, Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson) and the adopted Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), were all child prodigies. Chas made a killing in finance and real estate before graduating from middle school. Richie was a world-class tennis champ at an early age, and Margot's playwrighting skills were also honored early in life.
As adults, the three have not enjoyed such good luck. Chas is now a widower with twin sons. Richie has lost his competitive drive, preferring to wander the high seas fighting the impossible love he harbors for the promiscuous Margot, who suffers from a decades-long case of writer's block and the need to threaten her marriage to depressed child therapist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray).
As with his previous comedies, Anderson co-wrote the "Tenenbaums" screenplay with Owen Wilson, who appears briefly but hilariously as novelist Eli Cash, once Richie's best friend who ran off for a time with Margot. With great speed and economy, Anderson and Wilson highlight the back-story and then set their players in motion. Since this is a family drama, Anderson and Wilson contrive to get the brood back under the same roof for a wedding. Not Margot's, however, but mom's. After raising her trio of geniuses on her own after her once-successful litigator abandoned them and after 16 years without sex, Etheline Tenenbaum is thinking about marriage. She, of course, isn't officially divorced, but that didn't stop her colleague and bridge partner, Sherman (Danny Glover), from popping the question.
A dour group to begin with, the Tenenbaum kids all move back home. While sibling rivalries and other emotions pull them hither and yon, things get totally crazed when dear old dad decides to make amends by moving back in, as well. When the patriarch's proclamation of having only six weeks to live is immediately exposed for the lie it is, the Tenenbaums' collective fury reaches meltdown mode. But since this is a comedy, albeit an absurdist one, daddy doesn't exactly depart the scene.
Anderson's admiration of and respect for past masters Preston Sturges and Jean Renoir is evident throughout, but there's also a distinctly homey feel to his brand of eccentricity. While some might find that whimsy a tad too precious, Anderson layers both the humor and the characters with cleverness and melancholy. The actors, however, are not uniformly up to the carefully crafted challenge Anderson and Wilson have penned for them. Interestingly, it is the parents Hackman and Huston who give the most nuanced performances. As Richie, Luke Wilson delivers his best on-screen performance to date, while Paltrow continues to impress, this time as a woman who has everything except a heart. Sadly, Stiller is required to do little more than express an unforgiving stoniness and wear a red jogging suit.
During this season of often-forced familial togetherness, "The Royal Tenenbaums" might hit a little too close to home for some viewers. Those who relish their family's eccentricities and foibles, however, should find this seriocomic valentine to the ties that bind an unexpected present. Unabashedly absurdist, "The Royal Tenenbaums" provides a comic footnote to that sage old maxim of grown children not being able to return to the hearth and home of childhood. Anderson shows us you can go home, but not as you wish, and always with comic
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