The Royal Tenenbaums (R) ★★★★

Review Date: December 31st, 2001

Black comedy has never been darker than in The Royal Tenenbaums, about a screwed-up family of eccentric geniuses who reluctantly reunites years after splitting up.


Meet the Tenenbaums, a textbook dysfunctional family Lawyer Royal (Gene Hackman) and his devoted wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) have three geniuses for children: sons Chas (Ben Stiller), a financial whiz kid, and Richie (Luke Wilson), a tennis prodigy, and daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), a writer, whom Royal never hesitates to remind is adopted. Enjoying far more success in law than fatherhood, Royal ignores his kids when he's not insulting them, cheats on his wife, and finally one day packs up and heads out altogether. Twenty years later, broke and feigning illness, Royal returns home hoping he can pick up where he left off, but instead he finds only the sad fallout brought by his selfish ways. Chas, a widower, is a rich-but-neurotic businessman who inflicts his own anal-retentive hang-ups on his two sons; Margot, a struggling playwright, can't stay faithful to her aging psychologist husband (Bill Murray); and Richie is a failed tennis pro whose legendary meltdown at the U.S. Open was caused by his secret love for Margot. Meanwhile, the family accountant (Danny Glover) has been wooing Etheline, now a prosperous archaeologist, and Richie's faithful childhood friend Eli (Owen Wilson, also co-writer) is now a successful novelist with a nasty drug habit.


No doubt this film was released during the height of Oscar season for good reason: a host of award winners among this all-star cast lends much cachet to Wes Anderson's (Rushmore, Bottle Rocket) third film. Hackman's patriarch may be filmdom's most charming wretch you've ever hated to love. The way he treats his family is reprehensible, but the pitiable depths to which he sinks make him somehow lovable. Paltrow never cracks a hint of a smile as the kohl-lined, faux-fur wearing Margot, whose morose demeanor and stubborn secretiveness attract and repel at the same time. Stiller discards most of his deadpan humor in favor of a darkly irrational dramatic character whose pain and anger bubble just under the surface; as the oldest boy, he harbors the most hatred for his father and it shows. Both Wilson brothers carry their weight (the better known of the two, Owen is careful not to show up his brother's larger and perhaps more difficult role). Glover's long-suffering accountant is comical yet still dignified.


The jury is out as to how this Wes Anderson effort compares to his previous feature films. Best bet? Don't make comparisons; take this film on its own merit. The story is introduced via narration by an expressionless Alec Baldwin, who reappears in voiceover every so often throughout the movie after introducing us to the Tenenbaums (perhaps the funniest part of the movie is that first 20 minutes). The setup is great--dysfunctional-family movies have been done to death, but Anderson paints these characters with meticulous originality. He walks a thin line between scenes so darkly funny you feel guilty for laughing, and poignant lines delivered with such a light touch that the film never gets schmaltzy--it's too smart for that. (One sequence late in the film is so shocking, you can't believe you're laughing about it one scene later.) Anderson's strength also lies in the details: with scenes shot in parts of New York you've never seen, retro décor from a number of eras, grainy colors and a soundtrack with everything from the Beatles to The Ramones, its never clear exactly where or when the Tenenbaums live.

Bottom Line

Infidelity? Incest? Suicide? This brilliant third effort from director Wes Anderson and his writing partner Owen Wilson extracts humor from the most unfortunate circumstances, making The Royal Tenenbaums possibly the season's best dark little secret.