THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS

Directed by Wes Anderson

Written by Anderson and Owen Wilson

With Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Wilson, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Seymour Cassel and Kumar Pallana

***1/2


2001 was a weird year in cinephilia. Indiewood entrees like GHOST WORLD, MEMENTO and MULHOLLAND DRIVE and foreign films like IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, TOGETHER and THE CIRCLE were almost universally lauded. Meanwhile, Hollywood produced love-it-or-hate-it head-scratchers like A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, MOULIN ROUGE and - to a lesser extent - SHALLOW HAL and FREDDY GOT FINGERED. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS falls into this camp too: the backlash provoked by RUSHMORE's combo of commercial failure and cult worship - which turned the film into an instant classic in many circles - has arrived.

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS presents itself as chapters from an apocryphal book, with narration from Alec Baldwin. Matriarch Etheline (Huston) describes her progeny in a book title as A FAMILY OF GENIUSES. All of them peaked early. Chas (Stiller), a youthful entrepreneur, has been emotionally devastated by his wife's early death and carts his two sons, Uzi and Ari, around in matching track suits. Richie (Luke Wilson), a tennis pro who ruined his career by spacing out during a match, now travels around the world by sea. Adopted Margot (Paltrow), a precocious playwright, has given up her art in favor of lengthy baths, secret cigarette binges and avoiding the attentions of her husband, Raleigh (Murray). Royal (Hackman), a terminal liar who ripped Chas off as a teenager, decides to bring the family together by faking a terminal illness.

Anderson hasn't changed his style much. In fact, he hasn't altered it at all: THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS features the same kind of opening montage of youthful achievements that kicked off RUSHMORE , the same deliberately stiff, symmetrical framing with characters usually posed midscreen and a  selection of 60s and 70s rock on the soundtrack. However, the two films have as many differences as similarities: THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS is RUSHMORE played slowly in a minor key.

RUSHMORE deliberately blurred locations and decades. Shot in Texas, it was set in a never-never land where British accents were more common than Southern ones. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS extends this tendency by creating a fantasy New York out of J.D. Salinger, old issues of THE NEW YORKER and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. In many respects, it's a conservative vision: a city that came pre-gentrified. Unlike Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Montmarte (or FRIENDS' New York), Anderson's storybook New York contains a a few people of color, but its treatment of Royal's buffoonish, ludicrously servile valet Pagoda (Pallana) is borderline racist. Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), a drug-addled writer who desperately wants into the Tenenbaum family, is just as much of a caricature, but he's nobody's servant. This failure is especially disappointing coming from a guy who created one of the few fully realized, non-stereotypical Asian-American characters in a Hollywood film.

However, Anderson's far more astute about the ins and outs of class. Max Fisher undoubtedly aspired to the precocious success of Margot. He may have been fortunate not to find it: I imagine Eli  and Margot as bizarro-world incarnations of Max. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS examines how one become a "failure" with plenty of money in hand, and - more importantly - the ways class privilege can insulate men from the pressures of growing up and dealing with the real world. (VANILLA SKY attempted something similar, but it amounted to a confused ode to movie star narcissism.) Royal is twenty years older than Bill Murray's character in RUSHMORE. (His younger incarnation looks like Tony Clifton.) Sadly, he's even more childish, capable of extremes of casual cruelty - racism towards Etheline's fiancee, shooting Chas with a BB gun - and sudden bursts of energy.

In a monumentally cynical take on THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, one critic has complained that "Where RUSHMORE was tolerably cute, precious, and self-satisfied, this one is suffocatingly so -- Dalmatian mice??? -- to the point where I can't understand its appeal even to staunch loyalists. His style -- jokey-deadpan dialogue exchanges, annoyingly symmetrical framing, flashy montages, retro-cool, ersatz 'heart' -- is starting to come off like an ad executive's idea of what appeals to twenty-something hipsters. At least Gap commercials only last 30 seconds." In my opinion, there's nothing ersatz about its heart, and the choice of music amounts to something far more significant than retro-cool. RUSHMORE used relatively upbeat British Invasion rock, while THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS uses melancholy songs like the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday," Velvet Underground's "Stephanie Says," Nick Drake's "Fly" and Nico's "These Days" and "The Fairest Of The Seasons." The two soundtracks may be equally hip, but they create entirely different contexts. Anderson's use of widescreen does much the same: RUSHMORE brought together all its characters for a play and dance; THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS reunites them at a funeral.

RUSHMORE looked slight  on a first viewing but gradually expanded in my memory and with repeated viewings: at this point, I think it's the best Hollywood film of the 90s. On the other hand, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS looked weaker the second time around, as  Anderson's cuter conceits - using the same font for almost every bit of text onscreen, those darn  mice running around - wore thin. Nevertheless, each precious moment is matched by one of true tenderness - especially between Richie and Margot - or pathos. Charges that Anderson has simply made a weaker film of RUSHMORE or turned "Wesness" into a commodity are premature, although I don't want to see him make 5 or 6 more films that look like this. Far from simply pandering to RUSHMORE's cult following, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS expands its emotional palate, letting sadness overwhelm the comedy. I do wish that he'd let a bit more air into his fantasies and do justice to his entire ensemble of characters. However, in the context of American comedy (a genre filled with directors  incapable of doing much more than pointing the camera at the actors and keeping them in frame), I'm not inclined to complain about Anderson's carefully calibrated and expressive style or bittersweet touch.