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Royal pudding
Dining on Wes Andersonís Tenenbaums


The Royal Tenenbaums
Directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Wes Anderson and Luke Wilson. With Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Seymour Cassel, and Kumar Pagoda. A Touchstone Pictures release. At the Boston Common, the Fenway, and the Kendall Square.

Somewhere between Edward Gorey and John Cheever lies the strange realm of Wes Andersonís The Royal Tenenbaums, a realm so strange that at times even he loses his way in it. In his first two films, Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998), both co-scripted with Luke Wilson, Anderson established a one-of-a-kind style and tone, a twisted whimsy and sunny irony like Hal Hartley or Jim Jarmusch with a spritz of Looney Tune anarchy. The first film was a pyrotechnic harbinger of things to come, the second a sui generis masterpiece. The latest, like the family of the title, shows signs of a weakening pedigree. The Royal Tenenbaums seems prematurely decadent coming from a filmmaker who should be reaching his prime.

Itís not for lack of trying. Like Paul Thomas Andersonís Magnolia, Tenenbaums goes for broke from the very beginning. A book jacket for a novel called The Royal Tenenbaums opens to a voiceover narrator (Alec Baldwin) reading chapter one of a clan saga thatís summed up by the title of a volume by matriarch Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Huston), A Family of Geniuses. With breathless invention and a giddily perfect pop soundtrack, the story unfolds, illustrated in a series of blackout gags as elegantly wry and absurd as first-rate New Yorker cartoons.

Renowned anthropologist Etheline has a son, Chas (Ben Stiller), who in his early teens was already an entrepreneurial genius but is now an embittered, neurotic widower with matching little boys named Ari and Uzi. His younger, equally precocious brother, Richie (Luke Wilson), excelled at tennis but choked in a key match and now travels the world on a freighter, paralyzed by a mysterious heartbreak. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), the adopted sister, found her niche in playwriting, but after a fast start she languishes in a bathtub sadly fending off the solicitations of her much older husband, writer and neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray). Finally, thereís Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), the wanna-be Tenenbaum who tries to fit in with the family by growing up to be a trendy novelist and drug addict.

A collection of footnotes, more or less ó what draws them into a text is the head of the family, Royal Tenenbaum. Played by Gene Hackman, heís an embodiment of Andersonís sensibility at its best, a flurry of contrasting tones and emotions contained in a persona of genial disreputability. Long ago Royal was kicked out of the house for undisclosed crimes. He remains a liar, a cheat, and a selfish cad, but heís still irresistible, or so he hopes theyíll think when he shows up years later, broke and allegedly dying, and asks to move back in. There follows an energetically imagined but halfhearted comedy of treachery, loss, degeneracy, and reconciliation.

Anderson has acknowledged a debt to Frank Capraís You Canít Take It with You, which is based on the George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play about a similarly fractured but delightfully eccentric family. The originalís gravity and spirit Anderson couldnít quite take with him either, and itís not replaced by his own brand of non sequitur absurdity and deadpan fancy. On the other hand, he pays better homage to his source than Frank Darabont does in The Majestic. For that, thank Andersonís knack for the hilarious, inexplicable detail (who are those two Egyptian guys in Eliís apartment, anyway?) and a cast that appreciates the power of pauses and timing. Anjelica Huston brings credibility to the sad but steely mater familias (I couldnít help imagining her late father in the Hackman role). Surprising, too, is Paltrow: pale, blonde, and with infinitely weary and annoyed kohl-blackened eyes, sheís the negative image of Wednesday Addams.

The fraternal line and in-laws donít hold up as well, with Bill Murray wasted in a minor part, Danny Glover sporting a bow tie as Ethelineís suitor, and Owen Wilson largely reprising his role from Zoolander. Luke Wilson and Ben Stiller bring a reserve of pathos to their more damaged characters, but the increasingly contrived wackiness drowns it out, and by the third time the "Gypsy Cab" gag is run by, the Tenenbaums gene pool has been pretty much exhausted. Anderson may yet be the heir to the screwball-comedy throne, but his creative blood needs a fresh infusion.

Issue Date: December 20 - 27, 2001

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