The Royal Tenenbaums
The Royal Tenenbaums
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D    G U R E V I C H

Wes Anderson is an exceptionally talented director, whose career seems to have kicked into a high gear with a lavish studio production like The Royal Tenenbaums. I wish it hadnít. Not yet.

When the big marketing machine of Touchstone Pictures carpet-bombs the audiences into the complete media saturation, it is a rare filmgoer who has not formed at least some idea of what the film is about. Letís sum it up: in a New York brownstone lives a family of Tenenbaums -- the charming con man of a father named Royal (we play for big stakes here) played by Gene Hackman, Etheline, the mother, played by Anjelica Houston, and their three brilliant children. The oldest, Chas (Ben Stiller), is an entrepreneurial genius, a millionaire as a teenager (did anyone tell Mr. Anderson how banal it seems after a spate of baby e-moguls of the Ď90s?). Richie (Luke Wilson) is a tennis star who won three "US Nationals" (those darned trademarks!) in a row. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) got a young-playwright-genius award at 14. After early successes, all came down with crises of their own: Chas canít get over the death of his wife, Richie had a meltdown on the court and now aimlessly roams the world aboard a luxury liner, and Margot hasnít written a play in seven years. The reason for their downfall is their father, who abused them emotionally and finally left them -- or, rather, was kicked out by his wife. Now as Royal, down on his luck, gets the word that Etheline is about to remarry, he barges his way back into the house under the pretext of fatal disease and desperately tries to charm his way into their hearts. After a number of cute adventures, he succeeds -- kind of. Gene Hackman shines, sinking his teeth into the meaty part and devouring it with gusto; everyone else is trying to keep up.

There are several memorable supporting characters -- Owen Wilson, who co-wrote the script with Anderson, has a funny turn as a bestselling author on mescaline, and Danny Glover as Etheline's oh-so-proper suitor. Imagine a cast so bursting with star power that it can afford to use Bill Murray as a minor character. But basically, the above is not shorthand. Th-th-thatís all, fffolks.

Youíll love the film. Especially the first twenty -- thirty -- forty minutes of it. The pacing is fast and furious, and the humor is precise and pointed. I watched it in a big auditorium, and the laughter was continuous -- though not from everybody, and I suspect that those who did laugh were perhaps it doing too loudly to convince both themselves and non-laughers that they "got it."

When it comes to form, Anderson is anything but shy. He takes a risk by carefully crafting a fairy tale of New York -- the New York as seen through the prism of The New Yorker, as Anderson freely admits in the movie's Production Notes (e.g., where the only taxis are dented heaps with signs "Gypsy Cab") -- a jigsaw puzzle, where he works hard at reshuffling the pieces. The film is drop-dead gorgeous, every frame is chock-full with detail, and each one is used in a specific, deliberate way -- the books the characters read, the pictures on the walls, the images on TV. In one scene, I caught myself distracted from the dialogue as I tried to make out the patently fake street-sign of a made-up Embassy. It was cleverly shown in half, with Oriental hieroglyphs and a made-up flag to the side. It is revealed fully in a later scene: "The Office of Ambassador Secretary" (no country). Clever? Yes. But is it good for a scene to be hijacked by a smart-aleck joke like this?

Except Royal and Etheline, every character in the cast is allotted one set of clothing through the film (except the ending). It has to be a symbol of some kind Ė nobody save Royal is poor here Ė but it escaped me completely. Or, rather, it led me in the direction perhaps opposite to the one intended: these people donít change. Once drawn on Mr. Andersonís storyboard, they remain the same. What you see is what you get.

After the first twenty to forty minutes you begin to realize there will be no surprises. For a film whose characters are summed up by their schematic pasts, lists of clever remarks, and their clothes, predictability is deadly. Rushmore was one surprise after another: Max Fischer with his thick-framed glasses was like a cobra that charmed us mongooses into helplessly following him and his obsessions wherever they went. Here Ö is it so hard to figure that once Royal sets out to charm his grandchildren over his sonís protests, charm them he will? The only surprise here has Royal taking a job as an elevator man at the luxury hotel from which they kicked him out -- pretty slim pickings, I say.

And so towards the end, the jokes begin to wear thin (the endless book covers, both for Margotís plays and for Owen Wilson characterís bestsellers), the making-up between the prodigal father and his family looms inevitable, and the only emotional subplot, a budding love affair between a brother and a sister (ok, sheís adopted) is handled with the sophistication that makes Friends look like Tolstoy. The Rolling Stonesí "She Smiled Sweetly" is a fine song, but it canít carry the scene by itself. In the absence of rich dialogue, neither can Gwyneth Paltrow in her Addams Family Lite getup, with her endless smoking elevated to -- heck, I donít know. When Lauren Bacall asked for a light, the screen grew thick with excitement; when Paltrow keeps lighting them up, you want to give her a patch. (She does get some kind of patch-y substitute towards the end, thank God).

Finally, all protests notwithstanding, by picking a certain name for his characters (okay, so Royal admits heís only "half-Hebrew", but -- Tenenbaums?) and locating them in a certain city, however imaginary the interpretation, Wes Anderson plunges headlong into the bailiwick of another W.A. -- Woody Allen. Thatís fine, especially since the maestroís recent oeuvre feels pretty tired. There is at least one scene where Margot visits her real family in Indiana that will remind many of Allenís out-of-town nightmare in Annie Hall. But flying falcons and breeding Dalmatian rats (some of the charactersí quirky pastimes) doesnít quite measure up to Allenís existentialist riffs.

So -- is King Wes naked, after all? Not at all. Talent is talent, and Iíll still go see his next work. I only hope that maybe heíll grow a little wiser and read a good book or two. Because mocking bad books is no substitute for reading.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Touchstone Pictures (Buena Vista Online Entertainment)
Movie Web site: The Royal Tenenbaums



Photos: © 2001 Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.