The Royal Tenenbaums

When it comes to dysfunctional families, the Tenenbaum’s wrote the book. To emphasize that point, their story is told as a fable, chapter by chapter. page by page. It’s an unique framing device, but then “The Royal Tenenbaums” is a unique movie. Told with equal doses of bittersweet humor and pathos, the latest film from co-writer/director Wes Anderson is a delight from cover to cover.

With his previous two films, Anderson showed an uncanny ability to turn quirky, off-beat characters into sympathetic anti-heroes. Anderson’s first film, “Bottle Rocket,” was an assured debut, but “Rushmore” cemented Anderson as someone who can not only tell a story, but do it with style and flair. His reputation as an actor’s director makes it easy for Anderson to attract the best talent possible.

You couldn’t wish for a better cast of players in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” a dark ensemble comedy that constantly catches you by surprise. If that performers were a bushel of apples, there isn’t a bad one in the bunch. Gene Hackman is wonderful as Royal Tenenbaum, the patriarch of the dysfunctional family to end all dysfunctional families.

Hackman is so good as the rascally Royal, that even as the story begins, we immediately understand his desire to divorce his wife and family. The first chapter of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” sagely narrated by Alec Baldwin, introduces us to Royal’s wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), and his three young children, Chas, Richie, and their adopted sister Margot, who is never allowed to forget that fact.

All three children have found success early in life. Chas created and bred Dalmatian mice, providing him with the income to take the real estate and finance world by storm. Richie developed into a championship tennis player. Margot, already scarred by her father’s disinterest, became an award-winning playwright.

Then Royal bails on the family, crushing their already fragile egos. Now, as adults, Chas, Richie and Margot still battle with their inner doubts. Family man Chas (Ben Stiller) lost his wife in an accident, forcing him to return home with his two sons Ari and Uzi in order to feel safe. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) quit writing plays and married a writer and neurologist (Bill Murray), who is more interested in his test subjects than her. Richie (Luke Wilson), who has secretly been in love with Margot, self-destructed on the courts when he learned she got married.

In quick succession, all three children return to Etheline’s roomy New York brownstone, looking for some sort of guidance or support. Ready to be kicked out of his luxury hotel room, and aware that Etheline is being wined and dined by family friend and business manager Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), Royal sees a golden opportunity to weasel his way back into his family.

Feigning terminal stomach cancer, Royal uses sympathy to return home, and slowly begins to work on the children. Despite his deceit, it appears that Royal really wants to change. The big question is whether the children and Etheline are willing to let him. “The Royal Tenenbaums” is about second chances, not just Royal, but for every member of his family.

Each and every character has been wounded, but not mortally. There’s hope for them, but they have to be able to move beyond the hurt and heartache. How Royal goes about achieving that herculean task makes the film so much fun and relevant. Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson, who also co-stars as family friend Eli Cash (who is just as messed up as the Tenenbaum children), have made the characters so real that it’s impossible not to see a little of ourselves in them.

Even during the most absurd moments, the actors ground the comedy so that it becomes more than just a joke. It becomes part of the overall tableau, which we accept wholeheartedly. So when someone does something outrageous, it’s never out of character, like when Chas subjects his boys to fire drills because he can never feel safe after his wife’s accident. We don’t view his action as extreme because we know where he’s coming from.

The same applies to Royal. We may not approve of his methods, but we know his heart is in the right place. There’s a great moment halfway through the film where Royal and Etheline walk through a park discussing their relationship. Fueled by sparkling, almost lyrical dialogue, Hackman and Huston literally shine, demonstrating what happens when great talent meets great writing and direction.

Huston has some magical moments with Danny Glover, whose character serves as the voice of reason. There’s real romance in their eyes, a loving trust that can only come with true conviction. The opposite applies to Paltrow’s Margot, who never changes expressions throughout the entire film. Her performance is all interior, and her eyes, distant and dark, say so much. With one glance you can feel her pain.

Chas wears his emotion on his sleeve, and Stiller’s creation is one of the film’s funniest. With his red sweat suit and determined gaze, Stiller turns Chas into a neurotic nuisance who can’t see beyond his paranoia. His boys are desperately in need of a father figure, and find a makeshift one in Royal, who understands that all work and no play will turn Uzi and Ari into Chas.

Luke Wilson, brother of Owen and an Anderson staple, is extremely laid back as Richie, a man who knows defeat and meets it head on. When Richie confesses his love to Margot, it’s such a sweet and innocent moment we never want it to end, and when it does, we understand Richie’s reaction. Just like Bill Murray’s Raleigh St. Clair, who should be upset that his marriage is falling apart, but understands the dynamics of their relationship.

You appreciate the filmmakers ability not to turn all of this into melodrama. Every now and then they come close, but pull back just in the nick of time. Juggling such a large cast usually means making sacrifices, yet not one performance suffers. Every character feels complete. By the time the final chapter is over, we feel like part of the family.

A ROYAL PAIN Hackman is wonderful as tenacious Tenenbaum patriarch


Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover, Bill Murray. Directed by Wes Anderson. Rated R. 110 Minutes.


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