out of 4
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The Royal Tenenbaums
Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
2 stars out of 4
The opening shot of "The Royal Tenenbaums" scrolls from one window of
the Tenenbaum house to another, with the faces of the Tenenbaum children
dourly looking out. Writer/director Wes Anderson, he of the amiably
off-kilter "Bottle Rocket," picks up where his baroque treasure
"Rushmore," left off, this time dealing with a wayward father, a stolid
mother and three prodigies that achieve great things early in their
lives, only to later succumb to various forms of despair. The low-key,
quirky comedy is Anderson's most ambitious work and, at times, his most
maddening, but the further along the story goes, the more frequently the
pay-offs come, leading to a satisfying, literate finale.
Alec Baldwin narrates the tale of one of New York City's saddest
families. The film begins when circumstances bring the Tenenbaum
children, now miserable adults, back to the family home. Chas (Ben
Stiller), once an international financier, currently juggles his anger
and terror while caring for his two young sons. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow)
was a playwright who received a Braverman Grant of fifty thousand
dollars in the ninth grade. The only adopted child in the family (a fact
her father reminded her of incessantly), she now shares a dead marriage
with neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray). Richie, a tennis
player who won the U.S. Nationals three years in a row, tends to his
falcons and dreams of winning the heart of his adopted sister Margot,
his one true love. Finally, Eli Cash (Owen Wilson, co-writer of the
script), a novelist who has been friends with Richie since childhood,
remains a perpetual Tenenbaum hanger-on.
Family matriarch Etheline (Anjelica Huston), urban archaeologist and
contract bridge expert, weathered the disappearance of her husband years
ago and has just accepted the marriage proposal of Henry Sherman (Danny
Glover), the benign family accountant. But when the irascible Royal
Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) hears of his ex-wife's plans to remarry, he
leaves the hotel he lived in for years (they were throwing him out
anyway). His plan? Head for home, pretending to have a terminal illness,
and do his best to wheedle his way back into favor. After so many years,
the Tenenbaums are back together and everything is about to come apart.
That was a lot of backstory to wade through, eh? Anderson has trouble
sloshing through it too. Where "Rushmore" was a finely tooled machine
with a fantastic '60s British Invasion soundtrack, "Tenenbaums" runs
like a dryer with one tennis shoe in it, and the choices of songs ranges
from inspired to intrusive. The screenplay moves forward in fits and
turns, gradually discarding the excessive fussiness of Anderson's
introductions and establishing a (slightly) more naturalistic tone.
Thank goodness that Anderson's grand scheme finally comes together, and
credit Gene Hackman with a major assist. While the screenplay requires
most of the ensemble to underplay their parts, Hackman is permitted to
let rip, and he has the time of his life playing Royal Tenenbaum, making
the cantankerous old man crackle and pop. As with "Rushmore,"
reconciliation is one of the tale's primary destinations and, with a mix
of wry humor and angry outbursts, the story reaches its goal with a
skewed, satisfying closing scene. Would that all of the movie had worked
so well. Hopefully, when Wes Anderson makes his next film, he'll relax a
little bit and allow more of his players the opportunity to play.
Copyright © 2002 Edward Johnson-Ott
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