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With: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover, Bill Murray, Alec Baldwin (voice), Seymour Cassel, Kumar Pallana
Written by: Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson
Directed by: Wes Anderson
MPAA Rating: R for some language, sexuality/nudity and drug content
Running Time: 110
Date: 05/10/2001

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

4 Stars (out of 4)

A Family Thing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

"I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum," says Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) in The Royal Tenenbaums. "So did I," says the man himself, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman). I don't know if I would echo their sentiment, but I sure do love watching the Tenenbaums.

The Royal Tenebaums is the new film from screenwriters Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson and director Wes Anderson, the pair behind the American classics, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. I'm happy to announce that The Royal Tenenbaums joins them.

Wearing its literary influences on its sleeve -- I've heard comparisons to William Saroyan, Booth Tarkington, John Irving and J.D. Salinger -- The Royal Tenenbaums indeed plays like a book, showing us the opening line to every "chapter," and read to us by the terrific speaking voice of Alec Baldwin.

In addition, almost all the characters in The Royal Tenenbaums has published a book of some kind, with the exception of the estranged head of the family, Royal. His wife Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Huston) published a book about the raising of her three brilliant children: Chas (Ben Stiller), a brilliant businessman, Richie (Luke Wilson), a brilliant tennis player and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), a brilliant playwright. Unfortunately, they all peaked before the age of 20 and are now all neurotic outsiders.

A lengthy, clever introduction not unlike those of Rushmore and Amelie tells us the life stories of these and other characters. Margot is married, unhappily, to a psychologist named Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray). An accountant named Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) wants to marry the still-married but separated Etheline. And Richie's childhood friend Eli Cash had a brief fling with Margot and is now a successful author of what-if westerns (what if Custer didn't die at Little Big Horn?). Anderson regular Kumar Pallana plays the faithful family valet Pagoda, who once tried to stab Royal to death, then carried him to the hospital on his back.

The Tenenbaums' biggest clashes come when Royal gets thrown out of the hotel he's been living in since his marriage evaporated. He decides to fake a fatal illness in order to move back in and be with his family. Richie finally admits to being madly in love with his (adopted) sister Margot, and Chas is still bitter over the death of his wife. He's trying to raise his two kids, Uzi and Ari, alone though a strict regimen of exercise and number-crunching.

Anderson stages all the action like bizarre family portraits, everyone gathered into the frame and forced to perform as if against their wills. The backgrounds range from bizarre paintings to hog's heads, to just plain red. It all takes place in an artificial New York with rusty Gypsy taxi cabs and horrible polyester pants. The film begins with rigid, widescreen compositions but melts ever so slowly as we warm to the characters and become involved in their emotional plights. By the time the sublime final shot comes around, we're fully won over.

Likewise with Anderson's selection of big-hearted pop tunes, from the Rolling Stones to Nico to the Ramones to the Clash to the Beach Boys to Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas music. As in Rushmore, and as in Scorsese's and Tarantino's films, the pop tunes serve as the movie's score and the words in the songs take on new meaning when married to Anderson's images.

Working with Owen Wilson, Anderson manages to come up with dialogue worthy of these actors, songs, and pictures. Not one word sounds misplaced or wasted and it channels in and around your brain to make you laugh instead of bludgeoning you like most movies have a tendency to do.

With this dialogue, Anderson takes a beautifully delicate directorial approach, far too delicate for the Farrelly brothers or John Landis or even Billy Wilder. One has to go all the way back to Ernst Lubitsch, Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin to find anything comparable. When Royal buys Chas a new dog (a Dalmatian bought from some firefighters), Chas pets the dog, thanks his dad then begins to cry. "I've had a really rough year," he says and gives his dad a half-hug with the new dog in the middle, getting in the way.

In another scene, Royal approaches his wife for the first time in years and tells her that he's sick and wants to spend time with the family. Anderson keeps them to the right of the frame and a spindly, dead-looking tree with its branches hacked off on the left. Indeed, no matter how screwed up your family seems, you're all connected at the roots.

The title refers not only to the family's father figure, but is a sly play on Orson Welles' second film, the masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). That film also showed the decline of a family, but not its resurrection. The Royal Tenenbaums does it in reverse: from magnificence to despair to real love. It's one of the year's very best films.

In 2002, the Criterion Collection released a double-DVD set, which beautifully presented the film's colors, perfectly-composed photography and set design. It also contained a great half-hour "making of" video by Albert Maysles (who also made Salesman and Gimme Shelter). In 2012, Criterion upgraded to a superb Blu-ray. It holds up to many viewings, more than a decade later. Extras -- including a commentary track by Anderson and cast interviews -- are mostly the same.

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