FILM REVIEW: THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS

By Mark Caro

Chicago Tribune Movie Writer

3-1/2 stars

Director Wes Anderson and actor Owen Wilson have co-written three films, each more ambitious than the last and all inhabiting a world that spins on a different, more delightfully wobbly axis than our own.

The filmmakers' trademark characters have ambitions that may be absurdly overblown yet take their setbacks with great equanimity (at least in the long run). The would-be heroes of "Bottle Rocket" (1996) see themselves as mastermind criminals without ever becoming more than harmless young misfits.

In "Rushmore" (1998), a hyper-energetic high school oddball (Jason Schwartzman) and a disaffected business tycoon (Bill Murray) childishly vie for the affections of a comely teacher (Olivia Williams), who is troubled in her own way.

"The Royal Tenenbaums" finds Anderson and Wilson broadening their scope to take in the sprawling Tenenbaum family and their friends and associates giving us a pastel-tinted vision of Manhattan society. Royal Tenenbaum is actually the name of the patriarch (Gene Hackman) who abandoned his family 22 years ago and now is seeking reconciliation.

Still suffering, though, and reluctant to forgive him are his estranged (but never officially ex-) wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), and their three kids, all of whom are geniuses in their own ways. The tightly wound Chas (Ben Stiller) is an international-finance wiz, and widower, with two Brillo-headed sons, Ari and Uzi, whom he outfits in matching red sweat suits.

The sullen Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), who was adopted, established her formidable talents as a playwright back in high school, and the hippie-bearded Richie (Luke Wilson, Owen's brother) was a tennis champ whose career flameout led him to seek the truth in far-flung sea travels.

Having gone bust, Royal is getting the boot from his residence in a European-style hotel, and after a fateful visit to the doctor, he tells Etheline he has just six weeks to live and would like to spend them in his old city house. Pretty soon the whole family is back under the same roof, churning up old resentments and submerged passions.

Such a scenario could be the basis for a deadly earnest drama in which everyone works through their "issues" before reaching some sense of equilibrium. Thank goodness this isn't that movie; Anderson and Owen Wilson are gifted humorists who understand that comedy at its best can reveal at least as much about human nature as any sober treatment.

Anderson lays out the story as a modern-day fable, with fancy chapter headings and a gruff-voiced narration from Alec Baldwin. This is the rarified world of J.D. Salinger's Glass family or Orson Welles' Magnificent Ambersons gone cosmopolitan with some helium added to the air everyone breathes.

"The Royal Tenenbaums" is more flat-out funny than "Rushmore," but in neither film is the humor joke-based. What you're laughing at is the behavior of characters who are so fixed in their idiosyncratic worldviews that they can't help but careen into each other like out-of-control bumper cars.

Chas remains angry at his ruthless dad for intentionally shooting him with a BB gun during a childhood game, not just because the BB remains lodged in two of Chas' knuckles but because he and his dad were on the same team. Lacking any satisfactory response to his son's complaint, Royal just offers a that's-life chuckle, delivered with Hackman's trademark twinkle.

Royal also shows an appalling lack of tact in references to Margot's being adopted and Chas' wife being dead, yet you never feel like he's a true scoundrel; he's just a guy who can't control his jerk reflex but at least is aware of the problem. One of the movie's best lines comes when Henry Sherman, Etheline's exceedingly upright suitor, played by Danny Glover, parses the difference between two insulting epithets to apply the appropriate one to Royal.

Royal may not have shed his stubborn, overgrown-child qualities, but at least he's filled with life; the movie's giddiest moments come when he's teaching Ari and Uzi to outrun oncoming traffic and to shoplift organic milk.

Rarely has such a seemingly damning portrait of a man been presented with such affection by the filmmakers and the actor. The note-perfect Hackman applies his inherent warmth and feistiness to give us a character who realizes life is just a game so he'd better learn to be a more graceful loser.

This generosity of spirit extends to the other characters: Huston's no-nonsense Etheline, who takes a back seat to no one; Glover's Henry, whose formality in manner and dress (he's keen on blue suits, bow ties and checkered shirts) belies a competitive streak rivaling Royal's; Bill Murray as the droopy Raleigh St. Clair, Margot's older, cuckolded husband; and Seymour Cassel and Kumar Pallana as Royal's occasional accomplices.

Owen Wilson turns in another of his loose, droll performances as Eli Cash, the Tenenbaums' neighbor, Margot's sometimes-lover and the best-selling author of books of dubious quality. Eli, however, becomes a bit of a drag when his drug problems push the narrative toward madcap territory.

The least developed characters, oddly enough, are the trio of siblings. Stiller gets to show little more than Chas' seething qualities, Paltrow's Margot is unrelentingly glum, and you never really get under the skin of the quite serious emotional problems suffered by Luke Wilson's Richie.

"The Royal Tenenbaums" is less cohesive than "Rushmore," yet like its predecessor, it builds to an emotional payoff that comes as a surprise given the offhanded way the story unfolds. The key is that Anderson and Owen Wilson are exceptionally keen, sympathetic writers, and Anderson extends that specificity to his direction. The music (he remains fond of lilting '60s British invasion plus "A Charlie Brown Christmas"), production design and cinematography (by repeat Anderson collaborators David Wasco and Robert Yeoman, respectively) put you in a time and place governed by their own rules.

Only here could one of the biggest laugh lines be "Push fluids and continue the stomach cancer medication." Really, it is. In honing their unique comic sensibility, Anderson and Wilson have delivered the year's best American comedy not that the competition bothered to show up.

"The Royal Tenenbaums"

Directed by Wes Anderson; written by Anderson and Owen Wilson; photographed by Robert Yeoman; edited by Dylan Tichenor; production designed by David Wasco; music by Mark Mothersbaugh; produced by Anderson, Barry Mendel, Scott Rudin. A Touchstone Pictures release; opens Friday, Dec. 21. Running time: 1:48. MPAA rating: R (some language, sexuality/nudity, drug content).

Royal Tenenbaum Gene Hackman

Etheline Tenenbaum Anjelica Huston

Chas Tenenbaum Ben Stiller

Margot Tenenbaum Gwyneth Paltrow

Richie Tenenbaum Luke Wilson

Eli Cash Owen Wilson



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