Eli Cash (the gloriously cool Owen Wilson) has always wanted to be a Tenenbaum, ever since he was a kid living across the street. He always envied these children who inspired their mother Etheline (Angelica Huston) to write a book entitled “A Family of Geniuses”. Like the Glass family in J.D. Salinger’s post-Catcher oeuvre, the Tenenbaums spawned one whiz kid after another: Chas (Ben Stiller), who was already business tycoon as a preteen, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), who won the Pulitzer Prize for one of the plays she wrote as a teenager, and Richie (Luke Wilson), the best American tennis pro at age seventeen. Of course, being a Tenenbaum isn’t what it’s been bandied about anymore. After years of careless parenting and unfaithful husbandry, old man Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) was thrown out by his wife and for a long time, he disappeared from their lives.
But now, in the dawn of a new century, Royal goes back to his roots, and events cause his children to also move back in the family house, the whole depressed, conflicted and down-on-their-luck lot of them. Still, Eli’s pleased to see his old buddy Richie again, and he even gets to diddle Margot. Cash is now a “writer”, posing as a cowboy and touring bookstores with his surprisingly successful Western-themed novel. The Tenenbaums, though, haven’t known much success for the longest time. Margot hasn’t been writing, meandering through meaningless affairs instead before settling in with a grey-beard neurologist (Bill Murray). Richie had a meltdown during a match and hasn’t been competing since. Chas did keep up doing business, but the tragic death of his wife and mother of his sons Ari and Uzi has made him an angry, bitter man…
Looking back at my plot summary, I make the film sound solemn and melancholy, which at its core it pretty much is, but as directed by Wes Anderson, it actually plays like a colorful comedy. “The Royal Tenenbaums” is his third feature, and like the offbeat crime tale “Bottle Rocket” and the quirky high school movie “Rushmore”, it has a very elusive tone, flickering from satire to drama and back. I’d describe it as cartoonish poetry, or as a poetic cartoon, I’m not sure which. What I mean, anyway, is that the film follows a pop art aesthetic where everything is just a little off. Like in a comic book, the characters are almost always wearing the same clothes: Chas and his boys in their red Adidas jumpsuits, Margot with the black eyeliner and the fur coat, Richie sporting big sunglasses and a headband, Eli in his cowboy outfit… The set design goes in the same vein, with pastel walls, Dalmatian mice, bizarre paintings, stacks of porno tapes lying on a table… Furthermore, the whole film is told as if read off a storybook by an unseen narrator (Alec Baldwin), with chapter breaks and all.
Yet beyond the bright-and-sunny coating, this is a pretty bittersweet story about a man who wants to make up for being an asshole to his family before it’s too late. Gene Hackman is very good in the role, balancing well the hilariously misguided behavior of Royal with his relatively sincere intentions. The other major storyline revolves around Richie’s unhealthy infatuation with his sister. She is adopted, one must precise, but still, “it’s frowned upon”. This gives the film unusual but affecting emotional undertones, and Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow deliver very good, sullen performances. It’s nice to see Ben Stiller a little more reigned in than usual, but his character is a bit one-note. As for Bill Murray and Danny Glover, who plays the family accountant and Etheline suitor, they have their moments but are rather overshadowed by the leads and, especially, Owen Wilson (who also co-wrote the film, as he did for Anderson’s previous pictures). For my money, he totally steals the movie, bringing in the biggest laughs as the perpetually stoned Eli.
There is a lot to enjoy in “The Royal Tenenbaums”, and I’m sure that subsequent viewings would be as stimulating. The visuals are a treat, and they’re matched by a great soundtrack which includes songs by Nico, The Velvet Underground, Paul Simon, Nick Drake, The Ramones, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles (but only in cheesy instrumental form because they wouldn’t give away the rights) and others. My only beef with the film is that it’s almost too clever for its own good. At numerous points in the film, I was close to really be feeling for the characters, but then the film shied away and did something silly. Granted, often those said silly touches are quite amusing, but I think the film had the potential for more meaning, more depth. In any case, Anderson remains one of the truly original voices in contemporary American filmmaking, and I’m sure he has his best movies still ahead of him. And Owen Wilson rocks!