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The Royal Tenenbaums

Dysfunction Fun

Wes Anderson's got a lot of people heaping laurels on him, proclaiming his genius, his quirky style, his hilarious writing. His first two films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, have a not-so-small group of die-hard fans, people who think of the Texas-born director as something like a deity for the masses--he appeals to down-to-earth intelligence that strikes a chord in a certain age group, of, say, 20-30 year olds. With his latest film, The Royal Tennenbaums, Anderson has attracted an ensemble cast that most directors in or out of Hollywood would have to scramble and bribe and desperately woo to get in their movies, but he's managed to attract Gene Hackman, Angelica Houston, Gweneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, and Danny Glover by pure, simple talent. And Anderson's Texas crew--who're staples in his films, and who've also managed to easily slide into Hollywood roles--Owen Wilson (who's also his writing partner) and Luke Wilson round out the Tennenbaum cast.

Anderson's gone into J.D. Salinger territory here with a "Franny and Zoey"-like tale of a grand dysfunctional family of geniuses who're so extraordinary they're bordering on insane: the old genius/idiot phenomenon. Hackman plays Royal Tennenbaum, the wayward, selfish, venal patriarch who would gamble away his kids if the price was right. His wife Ethyl (Houston) is a mildly stoic but loving mother who sends Royal packing when the kids are still young, and takes up a career as an archeologist. The there are the kids. Stiller plays oldest son Chas, who's an accountant before he hits puberty and a track-suit wearing widower and over-protective father as an adult; Wilson is Ritchie "Baumer" Tennenbaum, a tennis champion whose daily uniform is a sweatband around his head and a crumpled thrift store suit; Paltrow's the morose adopted daughter Margot, who's a black-eyelined playwright, and the object of Ritchie's torturous, unrequited love. They all hate their father (except for soft-hearted Ritchie, who gives the old man a chance) and spend the majority of the movie despondent and skeptical of Royal, who's abruptly re-entered their lives by moving in to the house, saying he's dying and has precious little time to live.

Besides the hints of Salinger, Anderson's film sounds a lot like a John Irving story: an upper-crust, precocious, offbeat family swimming in a sea of sex and love and randomness. It's not as original a plot as Anderson and Wilson are getting credit for. But still, it's what they do with the plot that counts, and the fairy-tale art direction, idiosyncrasies-beat-up Gypsy Cabs that keep showing up, hilarious moments and of course the track suits-and at times sublime writing are what makes Anderson's films stand out. He's got style, and it's those brief moments of humor that surprise you, straddling the borders of insight and stupidity, that are drawing the masses.


The Royal Tenenbaums
Rated R
1 hour 43 minutes

Gene Hackman
Anjelica Huston
Ben Stiller
Luke Wilson
Gwyneth Paltrow