Royal Tenenbaums, The (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When I first heard the title of this movie, I thought it was a great ploy to release it around Christmas. Then I realized it was "Tenenbaums", not "Tannenbaums"... so much for that idea. Actually, Touchstone has elected a year-end release because they believe this movie, the third feature from critics' darling Wes Anderson (Rushmore), might have a shot at an Oscar or two. Despite the high profile cast, which features Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen & Luke Wilson, Danny Glover, and Bill Murray, the movie probably has limited box office potential - it's a little too quirky for mainstream America. But the mercurial Academy may feel differently about the production than the multiplex masses - at least that's the distributor's hope.

For those who enjoy skewed, deadpan humor, The Royal Tenenbaums has enough to sate the appetite. The movie is a twisted satire on the feel-good genre in which an estranged family member returns to the fold and redeems himself. It's Frank Capra crossed with David Lynch, with a little Monty Python thrown in on the side. The movie is rarely (if ever) side-splittingly funny, but there are so many clever moments that nasty chuckles and devilish smiles come at frequent intervals. The movie doesn't have more heart than Anderson's vastly overrated Rushmore, but it's a smarter, more sophisticated endeavor - a clear indication that the filmmaker has grown.

The Tenenbaums are dysfunctional in only a way a movie family can be dysfunctional. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), the patriarch, is not a good father. Although he and his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), have raised three gifted children, all of them have grown up to be burnt-out neurotics with "issues". Chas (Ben Stiller), a real estate wheeler-dealer in high school, is afraid of his own shadow. Margot, a promising playwright (and the adopted daughter), is trapped in a loveless marriage with a much older man (Bill Murray). And Richie, a former U.S. Open tennis champion who had the biggest meltdown in the history of the sport, pines for his true love - his sister. Royal, meanwhile, has left the family home to live in a hotel. Although he has never officially divorced Etheline, he has not seen her or his children for three years. Then comes the news that Etheline is considering the marriage proposal of Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), and Royal decides he wants to win her back. So, faking a terminal illness, he returns to the Tenenbaum home - at about the same time that Chas, Margot, and Richie all show up. Suddenly, all the members of this none-too-happy clan are back together under the same roof. The Waltons, they aren't.

Anderson doesn't seem to mind breaking movie taboos. Not only does he have a lot of fun with the incestuous relationship of Richie and Margot, but he does something no director seems willing to do these days: kill a pet dog. Much of the humor is sly and dry, not outrageously flamboyant - very little of it belongs in the same category as that of Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller's most recent outing, Zoolander, or Gwyneth Paltrow's entry into the Farrelly Brothers' canon, Shallow Hal.

Dramatically, The Royal Tenenbaums is on uncertain ground. Anderson wants the characters to grow on us, and seems to believe that Royal's Scrooge-like transformation should have some meaning, but it doesn't really work. The reason has to do with Anderson's style. He is a master of understatement; all of his actors underplay their parts. That works to emphasize the satirical elements, but distances us from the characters. Still, while Anderson would like it if The Royal Tenenbaums strikes an emotional chord, that's not his primary goal. He wants us to laugh far more than he wants us to cry, and, in that aim, he succeeds.

With the names in this cast, it may come as a surprise that the best performance is given by Gwyneth Paltrow, whose mannered portrayal of Margot shows hints of tremendous turmoil just beneath a seemingly placid exterior. She is nearly matched by Gene Hackman, although Hackman has the easier character to portray, since the only thing Royal is hiding is the truth. Ben Stiller essays the kind of on-edge individual he's good at, and Luke Wilson manages to hold his own, although just barely. (His more charismatic brother, Owen, takes a supporting role and is careful not to eclipse Luke.)

In a way, expectations may be The Royal Tenenbaums' greatest adversary. Stiller/Wilson fans anticipating another Meet the Parents or Zoolander will find themselves adrift in unexpectedly offbeat and cerebral territory. There are no flatulence jokes and little in the way of physical humor. The tone is dark, not feather-light, and the thinking viewer will definitely derive more from this movie than the one who approaches it mindlessly. Lovers of Rushmore will probably be delighted, but The Royal Tenenbaums contains enough that even those who were put off by the earlier movie may find something here worth savoring.

Royal Tenenbaums, The (United States, 2001)

Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 2001-12-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1