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The Royal Tenenbaums
Review by Harvey Karten
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Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent
alienation--or so says Wes Anderson in his new, imaginatively
told and generally absorbing movie "The Royal Tenenbaums"
which he co-wrote with one his stars, Owen Wilson. Yet another
tale of family dysfunction done with arthouse stylization, the
film sports dialogue as slow and imprecise as the colloquy in
Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's 11" is snappy and meticulous.
Despite the contemporary shape that director Anderson's gives
to "The Royal Tenenbaums," the picture unfolds in an old-
fashioned literary style, each chapter clearly separated by the
introduction of the novel, advanced crisply by Alec Baldwin's
crystalline but overly frequent narration.
What unfolds is a family that could have marketed the
most popular lines of a song from "Damn Yankees," given its
keynote message "Oh, it's fine to be a genius, of course, but
keep that old horse before the cart;/ First you've gotta have
heart." Despite the name of the paterfamilias of a family unit
which had an abundance of potential, there is nothing majestic in
the way the troupe wind up just twenty-two years after the brood
matures and plods through life either listlessly or with an
occasional dollop of malice aforethought.
Anderson opens on the title figure, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene
Hackman), a once-successful lawyer describing himself as "one-
quarter Hebrew and three-quarters mick Catholic"--which
probably accounts for the naming of two of his grandchildren "Ari"
and "Uzi" to say nothing of a family falcon named Mordecai.
Royal, whose wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) has chucked him
for reasons unknown, has helped raise a family of prodigies,
successful early-on as children with financial aptitude (Chas,
played by Ben Stiller) and stunning ability with a tennis racket
(Richie, played by Luke Wilson). His adopted daughter
(Gwyneth Paltrow), whom he regularly introduces as "my
adopted daughter Margot," is a playwright whose schoolgirl
writing talent dwindles as she approaches maturity. Other
relationships are effortlessly introduced: Raleigh St. Clair (Bill
Murray) as Margot's neurologist husband, Eli Cash (Owen
Wilson) as one of Margot's previous lovers, and Henry Sherman
(Danny Glover) as Etheline's tax adviser and suitor. In short, all
in the Tenenbaum family circle have worked with their intellect,
though the lack of heart, or soul, or just plain sanity has played
havoc with their potential.
Anderson milks both humor and pathos successfully for the
most part, so that one could not be blamed for shedding a tear at
the poignant conclusion of the movie while at the same time
leaving with a smile. Each of us in an audience bound to be a
primarily arthouse crowd is likely to relate personally to one of
more of the characters, whether the object of connection is the
father-hating Chas, the drug-taking novelist, Richie, or the
phlegmatic Margot who is unhappily married and unsatisfied
despite a succession of affairs with strange people from a
Papuan tribesman to a New York freak with a Mohawk cut.
More than likely you'll feel for Royal himself--a dad who has been
to the heights, has come down with a thud, is terminally lonely
and provides the center of the story as a man seeking
redemption with his progeny. "The Royal Tenenbaums" may be
too stylized for its own darn good, but given the plethora of films
about dysfunctional families, Anderson's quirky story is distinctive
Copyright © 2001 Harvey Karten
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