Movie Magazine International

The Royal Tenenbaums

USA - 2001

Movie Review By Casey McCabe

In the brief history of Wes Anderson films we open with his quirky postmodern criminal caper, the standard debut for hip independent filmmakers. Yet Anderson's "Bottle Rocket" didn't quite fit the mold. But like mold, it grew on you. For his sophomore effort, Anderson and screenwriting partner Owen Wilson did a most remarkable thing, lowering the stakes to a mild mannered prep school and creating in Max Fisher a wholly original character for the sweet and subversively funny "Rushmore"

Now Anderson's reputation already precedes him. His new feature, "The Royal Tenenbaums" attracted Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Bill Murray, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Danny Glover and the loyal Wilson brothers, Owen and Luke. So can "The Royal Tenenbaums" handle the pressure? Turns out that's the very question that drives the movie.

When it comes to thwarted genius The Tenenbaum family has it all over Max Fisher. Hackman and Huston preside over a magical New York brownstone that incubated three child prodigies. Chas, played by Stiller, started buying real estate in his early teens. Margot, played by Paltrow, won a major playwrighting grant in the ninth grade. And Richie, played by Luke Wilson, was a tennis whiz who went on to win 3 U.S. Nationals in a row. But somewhere between their parents separation and the crush of expectation, the Tenenbaum children receded into the shadows: Margot into the bathroom to sneak cigarettes and hide from her doting father-figure husband, Chas into raising two young sons to share his obsessive suspicions; and Richie onto the high seas, apparently trying to escape his notoriety for totally melting down in his last tennis match. Back into the mix comes patriarch Royal Tenenbaum, whose knack for candor finally landed him on the street. Pragmatic, opportunistic and possibly dying, he decides he wants to come home.

The dysfunctional family reunion, that rich wellspring of both comedy and drama, enjoys Anderson's childlike sense of whimsy and sincerity. He tells you up front he is telling you a story, complete with chapter headings, illustrations and narrator. When an actor is playing an accountant, as Danny Glover does, he wears a bow tie and a crisp pocket kerchief. For that matter Richie, the former tennis pro, continues to wear his Bjorn Borg headband wherever he goes. The New York locations somehow manage to avoid showing a single recognizable landmark, as if this were a slightly faux New York created solely for the film. And when Anderson wants to make sure you get the point, he just comes out and tells you. In one key scene the family has discovered that Royal's mortal illness is a scam and prepares to kick him out of the house yet again. Royal tells them the six days he'd been there were among the best in his life. Here, Anderson pulls in the omniscient narrator in to add "immediately after making this statement, Royal realized it was true."

"The Royal Tenenbaums" is both unwieldy and charming. If Anderson's third effort suffers, it's in having too many characters demanding love and attention. As it stands - and let's face it, it stands with films deathly afraid of whimsy and sincerity - "The Royal Tenenbaums" gets an A for originality. And like its characters, it seems content to play on the tantalizing fringes of greatness.

© 2001 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 12/19/01

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