It’s curiously appropriate that Wes Anderson’s new movie should center on three genius-level kids whose promise unravels as a result of their family’s dysfunction, because “The Royal Tanenbaums” seems like the sort of film that a precocious teenager might make–especially one hooked on the writing of J.D. Salinger. The picture is certainly superbly crafted–indeed the look, with its frequent static closeups and refined compositions, makes one think of later Kubrick. It’s got plenty of mirth, too, even though much of the humor is so aggressively oddball and arch that one can almost detect the word “quirky” flashing subliminally across the screen throughout the running-time (at least until the very close, when it might be replaced by the word “sentimental”). It’s far too rarified a picture to appeal to a large audience, but it should win plaudits from more sophisticated viewers, even while they recognize its shortcomings.
Set in a weirdly crumbling New York City at some unidentified date in the recent past, “Tenenbaums”–which is rather preciously constructed in the form of a series of book chapters whose initial words we see, printed on pretty pages, as they’re intoned by omniscient narrator Alec Baldwin and the action they initiate is played out on screen–begins with a prologue in which we see the three children of Royal (Gene Hackman) and Etheline (Anjelica Huston) prove their brilliance as urchins. Chas becomes a midget money-maker, Richie a tennis wunderkind, and Margot (who, as Royal is constantly telling people, is adopted) a promising playwright. Their potential, however, is undermined by the disintegration of their parents’ marriage as the result of Royal’s infidelities: before long Chas (Ben Stiller) is a phobic widower, overprotective of his two young sons, who loathes his long-absent father, Ritchie (Luke Wilson) an erstwhile tennis pro who choked during a big match (obviously because he loves his “sister,” who’d recently married) and is now a virtual recluse, and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), the secretly-smoking, perpetually despondent spouse of faddish psychologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray). Also in the mix are Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), the childhood buddy of the Tenenbaum kids, who’s now a drug-addled lit prof (and preening author of bad western novels)–as well as Margot’s furtive lover; Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), a buttoned-down suitor of Etheline (despite the fact that she’s never divorced Royal); and Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), Etheline’s butler, who even after so many years keeps Royal informed about happenings in his wife’s life. All these characters come together when Royal–evicted from his hotel suite and basically broke–worms his way back into the decaying family home by claiming to be terminally ill. Before long the reluctant family has gathered around him and he’s busily engaged in trying to reconnect with them and help them cure their psychic ills.
“The Royal Tenenbaums” is basically the old story about the lovable curmudgeon who returns after a long absence and redeems himself while gradually winning over his estranged relatives. (You will find a much simpler version of the same tale, for example, in Neil Simon’s “Max Dugan Returns” from 1983.) What sets it apart are the off-kilter characterizations and situations (typical of the Anderson-Wilson approach previously exhibited in “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore”) as well as the extreme visual stylization (an advance on the rougher appearance of the earlier films, and at many moments as ravishing to the eye as what one regularly encounters in Coen brothers efforts–David Wasco’s production design perfectly captures an air of seedy elegance). And, of course, there’s its superb ensemble cast. Hackman has a field day playing a twinkly-eyed old coot, and Huston and Glover complement him beautifully with their more laid- back turns. The brothers Wilson bring their familiar deadpan goofiness to the mix, while Stiller adds his manic shtick and Paltrow has Margot’s mood of zonked-out lethargy down pat. Gem-like work is done by Murray, who’s as subtle under Anderson’s hand as he was grotesquely gross in “Osmosis Jones” (here, as always when he’s at his best, he leaves you wanting more); by the delightfully dour Pallana; and by Stephen Lea Sheppard as Dudley, St. Clair’s nerdy star patient.
Clearly there’s an enormous lot that’s right about “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and you have to admire its cleverness and eccentric charm. A pity that its tone is so self-consciously, even smugly off-the-wall–a quality that can grow irritating when it’s so insistent. It’s predictable that a final turn to sentimentality when Royal’s redemption takes full hold doesn’t quite ring true, and it’s a good thing it’s capped with a great cemetery gag. That’s characteristic of a film that’s like a gorgeous Christmas ornament that glitters brightly but remains cool and hollow at the center. Anderson and Wilson have shown several times over that they have a winningly peculiar sense of humor, and Anderson’s style has certainly matured; but there’s still an aura of adolescent bravado about their work that one trusts they’ll eventually outgrow. For the moment, though, just relax and enjoy what they have to offer, warts and all.