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'Royal Tenenbaums, The'

'Royal Tenenbaums' peeks in on a family that peaked too soon

Friday, January 04, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

In the yo-yo world of celebrity, where you can go around the world and then end up walking the dog (usually someone else's, typically for a fee), even beauty and talent can't prevent you from ending up as a True Hollywood Story on E!, drowning in crocodile tears as it sinks its big, sharp teeth into the red meat of your undoing.

 
 
'The Royal Tenenbaums'

RATING: R for some language, sexuality/nudity and drug content

STARRING: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow

DIRECTOR: Wes Anderson

WEB SITE: bventertainment
.go.com/movies/royal/

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

"The Royal Tenenbaums," understanding that tragedy demands a closeup and comedy thrives at a distance, offers a quirky arm's-length view of genius that peaks too soon.

With a cool that stops short of being dispassionate, the movie gathers the shards of a fractious family of prodigies laid low by their insecurities and unfulfilled passions. With some justice, they blame most of their problems on patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), who tended to dismiss their budding talents with thoughtless remarks until he simply abandoned them as more trouble than they were worth.

All three of the children accomplished remarkable things at a young age. Chas (Ben Stiller) was a financial wizard. Richie (Luke Wilson) was a junior tennis champion. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), who was adopted (and Royal never let her forget it), was a playwright whose talent earned her a prestigious grant while in the ninth grade.

But where do you go from there but down?

Chas married and became the father of two sons who look and dress just like him, but he has been paranoid about their safety since the death of his wife in a plane crash. Richie had a public meltdown during a big match and has spent the past few years literally at sea, cruising the oceans. Margot married an older man, Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), but spends most of her time locked in the bathroom, secretly chain smoking.

They all move back into the family's big stone manse at about the same time that Royal, a disbarred attorney, gets evicted from his hotel residence. He decides to worm his way back into his family's good graces -- especially when he learns wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston), who never divorced him, wants to marry her accountant, Henry (Danny Glover).

And then there's Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), a neighbor boy who spent most of his time at the Tenenbaum house and turned out to be a success himself. But even though he achieves it at a later age, he handles it no better than the others.

What results from this volatile mix is both funny and surprising, as the characters finally come to terms with their failures, their resentments and their bottled-up desires.

Director Wes Anderson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Owen Wilson, frames the story as a fable set in the New York City of some alternate reality, featuring such whimsical touches as the 375th Street Y and the Gypsy Cab Company, a concept that takes on a powerful poignancy as these broken-down taxis ferry the woebegone characters back and forth in their search for something that feels like home.

The movie emphasizes the artifice of its world by telling the story as chapters in a book that materialize on screen from time to time, allowing us to read the first sentence or two as narrator Alec Baldwin recites them. Anderson introduces several of these scenes in mock-formal tableaus that sometimes put me in mind of a marionette theater.

Although the movie did touch me emotionally, the whole thing seems so much at a remove that I felt it might disintegrate if I embraced it too much. That also goes for the Tenenbaums themselves, who often come off like zombies, locked away in their own misery (except for the flamboyantly shifty Royal, whom Hackman plays with wonderful panache).

Anderson and Owen Wilson also created "Rushmore," an equally quirky but more warm-blooded movie about a teen-age prodigy at a private academy who, unlike these characters, was consumed by too much passion -- for his extracurricular interests (at the expense of his grades) and for a pretty teacher whom he was determined to marry.

"The Royal Tenenbaums" expands on several of the themes in "Rushmore." Max, the whiz kid, had his adult alter ego in Herman, a successful steel tycoon who befriended the youth and then wound up competing with him, wishing he could also find refuge again at Rushmore -- from his nightmare family, the demands of his business, the disappointments of life even at the top.

I can only imagine how much of this Anderson and Wilson draw from their own lives. If the movie hits it big, maybe we'll get the True Hollywood Story. For now, I'll gladly take the fanciful fable.

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