Had The Royal Tenenbaums been made by a first-time filmmaker unburdened by acclaim or expectation, it could be heralded -- and then just as easily dismissed -- as a light, literary exercise in filmmaking that's as pleasant as it is frustrating. Its tale of a dysfunctional family of geniuses torn asunder and then brought back together by its womanizing, son-of-a-bitch patriarch is so amiable it leaves in its wake a pleasant, satisfied smile, which disappears not long after the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B" fades over the closing credits. It's carefully written, perfectly shot (indeed each scene is rendered almost as a painted portrait), and engagingly agreeable, the sort of movie every film student who's ever adapted a J.D. Salinger short story as class project dreams of making once he or she moves to Manhattan and finishes studying at NYU. You may wish to smack it a couple of times, if only to knock that precocious grin off its freshly scrubbed mug.
But one expects more from writer-director Wes Anderson (and his co-scribbler, Owen Wilson) than such frivolous fun that bears no lingering effect. Their previous films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, were deeply felt works about screwups and outcasts trying to make their mark on the world, either by concocting convoluted holdups or elaborate stage plays; those films were funky and resonant, putting you knee-deep in the shit their protagonists kept slinging just to prove they existed. The Royal Tenenbaums instead feels like nothing more than the work of a visionary in need of stronger glasses. Anderson is so obsessed with the details -- the murals on the walls, the books that line the shelves, the board games that fill a closet, the fonts on a hospital's doors -- that he somehow misses the big picture: These characters, archetypes all, never come to life, never engage us, never make us feel. We're forever at a distance, marveling in the museum without being allowed to touch the master's precious creations.
It's as though Anderson shot his and Wilson's script down to every last period and comma and illustration but forgot to tell the actors just what it all means -- save for the obvious, which is that nothing hurts, and heals, more than family. As a result all the actors -- except Gene Hackman as Royal Tenenbaum, a hurricane refusing to become a slight breeze -- feel adrift and void, lost in a sad haze of their own creation. Maybe that's to be expected in a film about prodigies who piss away their potential, children who grow up only to break their promise. When the gifted squander their gifts, all that's left, perhaps, are empty boxes and crumpled paper; little wonder, then, that the Tenenbaum kids often do little more than stare (or sneer) into the emptiness their lives have become after two decades of "betrayal, failure, and disaster."
As Alec Baldwin informs us in voice-over, the Tenenbaum children -- Richie (Luke Wilson), Chas (Ben Stiller), and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) -- were once so bright and brilliant their hypersupportive mother, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), even wrote a book about them. (It's the goal of every character here to pen a book of some kind; maybe that's why the film plays like an abridged version of a novel, one with every other page missing.) Richie, known as The Baumer during his days on the pro-tennis circuit, played (and dressed) like Bjorn Borg, till one day he suffered an on-court breakdown; he's kept the Fila headband but disappeared to sail the world behind dark shades and a bum's beard. Chas was brokering million-dollar real estate deals in his teens; now he's a single father of two boys, Uzi and Ari, who sport the same tailor-made red Adidas jumpsuits and curly 'dos as their sullen father.
Margot, the adopted daughter never allowed to forget it, was a playwright by the ninth grade who penned works such as Erotic Transference. But her success, too, exists well in the past: She now spends her days hiding in a bathtub, secretly chain-smoking and watching TV -- anything to avoid contact with her husband, neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray).
The Tenenbaum children never realized their potential, blaming Royal, perhaps, for their failures; he's the convenient scapegoat, the object of their flagrant ire. Never do Chas, Richie, or Margot blame themselves; to do so would mean they're capable of any emotion other than bitterness. After all, they often speak of love -- and in Richie and Margot's case, an incestuous kind -- but do so as if they've absolutely no idea what the word means. Even Margot's long-time affair with next-door neighbor Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), a would-be Cormac McCarthy given to overwrought prose ("friscilating dusk light," indeed) and an unhealthy diet of cocaine and video porn, is disquietingly bereft of passion. Margot, a woman in her thirties dressed in Izods and barrettes like a child in her preteens, is more like her adopted dad than she ever imagines: She sleeps around to feel something but in the end gives absolutely nothing.
It's only when Royal discovers Etheline's romance with courtly accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) and returns home, insisting he's dying, that the family comes together one more time -- if only to heap upon their father more scorn lain dormant in the 22 years since Etheline kicked Royal out of their majestic, oddball Manhattan home. Beneath the same roof again, the family conjures all its demons -- not to exorcise them but to exercise them. Royal, broke and desperate, reveals himself a racist (he refers to Henry as a "big ol' black buck") and codger, but at least he has personality; the rest of the family members are like ghosts haunting an old house, transparent shadows awaiting their liberation from a self-made purgatory. As such, they have no real personality, especially Chas, whose revelation at film's end is sudden and inexplicable; the Tenenbaum kids are strangers -- to one another, to themselves, and, sadly, to us.
Upon leaving the film, a friend suggested, kindly, that The Royal Tenenbaums be seen as nothing more than a great pop song -- a three-minute smile spread over two hours. That observation is no real surprise: As in Rushmore Anderson loads his soundtrack with choice nuggets by Nick Drake, the Rolling Stones, Nico, and, finally, two selections from the Charlie Brown Christmas special, which he's wanted to use since Bottle Rocket. (Sadly the soundtrack this time around feels too pat, easy shorthand intended to fill in the copious blanks.) And you do want to cheer its ambitions, because The Royal Tenenbaums possesses its moments of sheer delight and surprise.
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