ROYALTY RUNS IN THE FAMILY
BY JESSICA JONES
It’s obvious that something is not quite right with the characters in The Royal Tenenbaums. Perhaps it was the early success of the Tenenbaum children that ruined them, leaving them with nothing to look forward to in life. Or maybe it was their deadbeat, absent father or their unaware and unattached mother. Whatever it was, “dysfunctional” is certainly the word to describe the quirky and often amusing world of the Tenenbaums. This family, self-destructive as it may seem, somehow just…works. Witnessing their peculiar existence is utterly engrossing and simply fun, maybe only because it makes our problems seem microscopic in comparison.
The theme of eccentricity is apparent from the opening shots and character introductions. We meet Chas (played by the always hilariously off-key Ben Stiller), the oldest of the three children, who was a real estate genius as a teenager. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow, charismatic because of her lack of charisma) is the adopted daughter her father never accepted and was an award-winning playwright in the ninth grade. Richie (Luke Wilson, impressively brooding and guarded in this role), the youngest son and most favored of the children, was a three-time champion tennis ace, whose public breakdown marked the end of his career. And then we discover why the Tenenbaum youths are the way they are: a nut can’t fall far from a nutty tree. Uninvolved trickster father Royal (Gene Hackman), who hadn’t spoken to his family in three years, and out-of-touch but caring mother Etheline (Angelica Huston) seem to be the primary culprits for the prevention of any normalcy in the family tree.
Bring in an all-star lineup of supporting characters including odd-ball childhood friend and Tenenbaum wannabe Eli (Owen Wilson), Ethel’s admiring accountant Henry (Danny Glover) and house man/loyal assistant Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), in addition to the misfit Tenenbaum family, and the result is one of the most wacky and entertaining films of the year.
Director Wes Anderson, who earned respect and praise from Hollywood heavyweights for his two previous endeavors – Rushmore (1998) and Bottle Rocket (1996) – is sure to gain an even larger fan base with this left-of-center tale of one family’s woes. Like with his other films, Anderson and Owen Wilson co-wrote the creative script with imagination and originality to spare.
The plot begins devilishly enough as the film opens (literally) at Chapter 1 with narration provided by the divinely scruffy Alec Baldwin. When Royal discovers that Henry has proposed to Etheline, to whom he is still legally married, he decides to try to reconnect with the family he abandoned more than twenty years before. The cancer he claims to suffer from only gives him six weeks to catch up on all that he lost. Simultaneously, all three of his depressed children move back under one roof, giving him the perfect opportunity to look like a father again. The close quarters provide for uncomfortable, funny exchanges and unanticipated discoveries.
The film itself is pleasing to the eye. The immaculate, symmetrically photographed scenes play up the characters’ eccentricities. The perfection of each scene and the family’s ritzy mansion contradict the ever-flawed Tenenbaums with mismatched excellence. The pristine quality of Chas’ basic, solid white home is interrupted by his bold red outfit and the air horn alarm that erupts when he conducts his routine midnight fire drill with his sons. An abundance of short, static, “ping-ponged” shots also wonderfully punctuate the unconventional humor.
The film’s intricate characters are just as crucial to the success of the movie as the company of actors that so magnificently portray them. In fact, one major downfall of the film is that it has little actual plot and instead relies on the characters themselves to create most of it. Each character is more like a one-dimensional cardboard cutout (but with countless idiosyncrasies) than an actual person. Decked in their respective uniforms – Margot in Lacoste t-shirt dresses and a mink coat, Richie in his horribly outdated (if it ever was in style, that is) tennis gear, and Chas (as well as his two sons) in red Adidas jumpsuits – not one character is unexaggerated. These caricatures nicely illustrate just how non-human the Tenenbaums are, but audiences may spend more time trying to figure them out than listening to the dry comments they deliver.
It takes experts to depict these cartoons so effectively, and Anderson clearly had his pick of Hollywood’s best for his cast. Like a frantic contestant on “Supermarket Sweep,” it appears as though he giddily snagged whichever actors on the shelf struck his fancy. Who better than the strong yet soft-spoken Angelica Huston to play the part of the abandoned Ethel, who breaks down in sobs when her no-good estranged husband tells her he’s dying and the next second beats him with her purse when he says he was just kidding. Ben Stiller fills Chas’ striped Adidas shoes precisely as a neurotic, workaholic worrywart.
But if these dysfunctional Tenenbaums are indeed royal, then Gene Hackman is without a doubt the king. Hackman, known for his grumpy seriousness in most roles, escapes his mold and gives a standout performance, a takeoff from his recent, more intense parts. It’s obvious to the audience how much fun he was having with the unbelievable disaster that is Royal. He delivers each line with a contrastingly abrasive yell and a cat-that-got-the-canary, sparkling grin. Only a professional like Hackman could make such a sleazeball (who is kicked out of his residence of the past twenty-two years, the Lindbergh Palace Hotel, for not paying rent) so gosh-darn lovable. Audiences can only chuckle when watching such a respected veteran race in a too-tiny go-cart and ride on the back of a garbage truck with his grandsons. His immature behavior – shooting his son with a BB in a childhood game and only being able to muster a hearty laugh when accused of stealing from his son’s safe deposit box – is excused as “innocent enough” and “good-natured.” Hackman, deadbeat though Royal may be, has never been more heartwarming.
This movie may never be fall-out-of-your-chair hilarious, but the imaginative and simply odd script will keep audiences snickering, quite guiltily, at the twisted mess the lives of the Tenenbaums have become. Films as daringly weird and yet surprisingly sweet as this one are rare. If for no other reason, audiences should see this movie to witness Gene Hackman’s most unexpected but certainly most enjoyable role to date. Laughing at the misfortune of others has always been fun (no matter what mother used to say), but never as much as in The Royal Tenenbaums. This film makes it an art.