Melancholy ensemble comedies easily attract big stars for short, meatier-than-usual roles, and the cumulative effect is often an un-satisfying string of fine performances in a film that collapses under its own creative girth. The narratives of Charles Dickens and Robert Altman sustain themselves while juggling characters as varied as Hawkeye Pierce and the Artful Dodger. Wes Anderson joins this exclusive, genius-approaching club with “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and cements his budding reputation as a major Hollywood player without compromising his sweetly-cynical outlook honed in his earlier works, “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore.”
“Tenenbaums” is Anderson”s most ambitious work to date, quietly moving from the insular worlds of his past films into a never-named (though recognizably New York) city full of both people and buildings well past their prime. Alec Baldwin, in voice-over narration, explains how Royal Tenenbaum bought his family home in his 35th year. An introduction explains how Royal and his wife Etheline gave birth to three child prodigies, all of whom, by their mid 30s, have become washed up shadows of themselves. We then meet an elderly Royal (Gene Hackman) virtually unchanged in over 30 years. The house, like the children, has decayed Only Royal remains unchanged, and he is the least liked character in the film.
Anderson again collaborates with actor/writer Owen Wilson on a script that showcases the painful humor involved in a truly dysfunctional family of geniuses. The laconic Wilson clearly understands his limitations as an actor, and is far superior speaking his own lines then he is playing heroic in “Behind Enemy Lines.” His role as life-long Tenenbaum neighbor/best-selling author Eli Cash is his best in years, and furthers the idea that he should never play a part he does not write for himself.
In both “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore,” Anderson and Wilson craft characters with such energy that their lack of ethics must be forgiven. In their earlier films, though, this was usually isolated to one or two characters (Dignan in “Bottle Rocket,” for instance). Here, they take their premise to the ultimate level an entire film swimming with characters deeply flawed enough to self-destruct at any second, yet the viewer becomes deeply invested in their fates.
“Tenenbaums” flawlessly forges character and actor, each player uses their strengths to create entirely new entities. Hackman”s wayward patriarch Royal is as charmingly greasy as Hackman”s greatest characters,yet has a certain humanizing pathos that allows the viewer to share in his joy and sadness. Like his portrayal of B-movie king Harry Zimm in “Get Shorty,” the viewer response to Royal has a positive correlation with his ability to irk other characters. While any number of actors deserve a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this film, Hackman stands out as the most crafty. His acting is not simply tweaking expectations, but developing a real, blood-and-guts character.
The main conflict arises when Royal is kicked out of his home (well, his hotel room) and decides that it is a good time to make peace with his “family of geniuses.” Son Chas (Ben Stiller) was a financial whiz as a pre-adolescent has become a jump-suit clad widower so paranoid about safety that he holds regular fire drills for his own young sons. Stiller challenges himself by keeping Chas hopelessly repressed, a martyr in his wife”s death. He avoids his trademark fits of anger until the films end. His catharsis works on a dual level, both for the character and the audience waiting to see Stiller explode. It”s a brilliant touch that shows the restraint of both actor and filmmakers.
Owen”s brother Luke Wilson plays Richie Tenenbaum, a young tennis prodigy who melts down on the court, the stress of stardom and his illicit love for his adopted sister Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) finally overtaking his sanity. Margot was an established playwright in middle school who hasn”t written in years, and spends most of her time watching television and sneaking smokes in the bathtub. The tension between Wilson and Paltrow is genuinely sweet, which makes it all the more disturbing. Paltrow gives a brilliant character performance, relying neither on her looks nor past achievements to breathe life into the complex relationship. Luke is laconic like his brother, yet has a subdued electricity that leaves him in a limbo somewhere between leading man and mental patient.
Anjelica Houston, as matriarch Etheline Tenenbaum, gives her best performance in years, giving Ethelne an inner sweetness and light confusion as to how her perfect family life fell to pieces. Danny Glover plays a kindly suitor drawn into the conflict and pitted against the ruthless Royal. As always, Glover is a solid character actor who, for some reason, makes a blue suit look dapper. Seymour Cassel gives fine support as a doorman posing as Royal”s doctor and Anderson regular Kumar Pallana is a riot as Tenenbaum butler and Royal compatriot Pagoda.
Bill Murray, as Margot”s put-upon psychiatrist husband, is tempered in his usual schtick, mixing dry humor with complete repression. Nearly unrecognizable under the worlds worst beard, Murray proves that his comic timing is perfect, even when he abandons the absurd for the painfully dry. While his role may be too small to receive an Oscar nod, it just proves that Murray”s snub for “Rushmore” must soon be vindicated.
The film centers on Royal”s return to the family home, claiming a terminal case of stomach cancer. The rest of the family returns home to deal with the loss of their father, a man that they never much cared for to begin with. Richie, the only Tenenbaum who felt close to Royal, must battle his brother over how to treat their “dying” father while nursing/fighting strong feelings for his own sister. Eli, fighting a drug addiction (though not fighting it very hard) also has feelings for Margot. Margot”s husband enlists the help of Richie to find out whether or not he is being cuckolded himself. The dysfunctional subplots are not intended to run together, but simply create an atmosphere of life in the family.
Anderson holds the story together with his brilliant pacing and use of music. The film is more about tone than plot, yet it never once lags. In a year where film continued it”s seemingly endless decline in quality, “Tenenbaums” restores faith in the medium while leaving room for rumination and laughter.
The film is the most enjoyable, unself-conscience comedy in years. Wes Anderson has become a hot commodity in Hollywood, and one can only hope that he influences the Hollywood mainstream instead of the much feared “watering down” of another fine film director.