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The Royal Tenenbaums

movie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Royal Tenenbaums

Starring: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston
Director: Wes Anderson
Rated: R
RunTime: 108 Minutes
Release Date: December 2001
Genre: Comedy

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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