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Review by Sam North
Royal Tenenbaums is clever and witty, each performance is eccentric and alive with promise

The Royal Tenenbaums

Never has New York looked quite so strange (more like San Francisco) , never has a film quite unsettled its audience as much as 'The Royal Tenenbaums'. Half way through this cinematic and bizarre family saga, I was suddenly reminded of Lemony Sicket, the author of strange and bizarre children's books - Could they be related? The same spooky homes, extraordinary characters, single-minded children...scheming adults. Then again other critics have pointed out that Johnathan Franzten's 'The Corrections' pretty much covers the same territory too. The Rockwellian family, overextended adolescence and literary leanings and disillusions with life.

Royal Tenanbaum is played with flourish and enthusiasm by Gene Hackman. He is a wastrel who happened to father two genius children (adopting Margot, a third) with his wife Etheline (played by Angelica Huston). The kids grow up to be very strange in the Tenenbaum household. One becomes a business genius, another a famous playwright and the other a world famous tennis pro. There is also the boy next door Eli, who is a wannabe Tennbaum. (Played by Owen Wilson who wrote this crazy thing). Royal seems pretty indifferent to their needs and is quite insensitive to their egos. So his wife handles the raising and education side of things. Pretty soon Royal is pretty much redundant. Etheline, is a archaeologist and the symbolism is clear, she is the most rooted and stable individual here.

The film briefly explores the kids world, then swiftly moves on to the adult scenario, some 17 years further on. Through a narrative storytelling technique (dryly delivered by Alec Baldwin) we gain insider knowledge to the lives so far of all the characters. Each one seems to have literary ambitions, yet each is a faded version of what they were or might of been. Each in his her own way has failed to live up to expectations.

Perhaps Royal once wrote spy novels, we see them just momentarily. We see Margot has had her plays published, her husband Raleigh St Clair a neurologist is writing and defining Dudley's World, an adult-child with unique symtoms. We sense all this as being no more than a sidebar of faded dreams. The wonderful details of these books, including Henry Sherman's tax guides are all lovingly reproduced to an exact pastiche. Everywhere in the Tenenbaum home, the library, the posters of past glories are glimpsed to convince, intrigue. The closet full of games. Nothing has ever been thrown away or forgotten. This is Wes Anderson's trick, the detail , the perfect embellishment that if we blink we could so easily miss.

Royal is now down on his uppers, His wife Etheline (not seen by him in at least seven years) is being courted by Henry Sherman a rich tax accountant played by Danny Glover and the kids are a complete mess. Ben Stiller, manic as ever,is Chas who has lost his wife to an aircrash, but gained two sons who look just like him. He forever lives with the pain of his loss and drives his sone to be just like him. Gwyneth Paltrow his adopted sister Margot, is married to on older man,Raleigh St Clair) Bill Murray, but spends most of her time locked into her bathroom watching daytime TV. Luke Wilson is the tennis pro-running away form his failure to come to terms with being in love with his sister and Eli Cash, the boy next door is living out some cowboy fantasy as a famous (and terrible) novelist with a drug problem. The most astonishing thing about this film is that it was released with a R for Restricted audience in the USA and in the UK would be basically considered a family movie. (Albeit a weird family).

Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson the creators have set the audience a dilemma. The curious thing about 'the Royal Tenenbaums' is that is really does have some funny moments, but essentially it is so strange that you are forever adjusting to the different realities for each set of characters to laugh out loud. Hackman gets the best moments with Kumar Pallana as Pagoda his sidekick, who sets up the scenes for him to steal.

Royal, kicked out of his room at the Hotel Lindbergh, needs a place to stay and contrives to worm his way back into the hearts of his family, the one he walked out of seventeen years before. He fakes cancer and naturally, since he only has six weeks to live, they take him in. Of course Sherman -the tax accountant is suspicious and ready to expose Royal any way he can. Royale perhaps makes it easy for Sherman by eating three cheese burgers a day,

What follows is a preposterous but wonderful family reunion set against Royal wanting to break up his wife's new relationship, and how, because he has returned, the kids also return and in doing so have the chance to put the past behind them at last. Of course it is never so simple as that, particularly as each character has their own story , own agenda, their own piece of heartbreak to claim. The father's absence in their lives has left a huge emotional gap.

Royal Tenenbaums is clever and witty, each performance is eccentric and alive with promise and these people are perfectly crazy enough to exist right alongside the crazy people in your own family. It's also unsettling, peculiar and strangely alienating and perhaps that is why it took the UK cinema audience so long to get into it.

Gwyneth Paltrow is a truly extraordinary actor. She can inhabit cool, sultry and totally wacky with such perfect ease. Her indifference to Bill Murray's pained shattered ego are a nice touch. Her preoccupation with tobacco almost her only 'human' side. She loves her brother, but equally, she's alert to the impossibility of it. We sense she likes how bad this makes her feel, even when her brother triers to kill himself when he believes she is having an affair with Eli Cash. A good touch too is how no one really explains their motives. Owen Wilson knows families well and how much actual pain they can inflict on each other. (Something that Franzen's 'Corrections' reaffirms.

The Royal Tenenbaums is a fresh look at American family values, cynical, but nevertheless reaffirming it's value, even to reprobates like Royal. Angelica Huston gives a solid performance and perhaps the one weakness is that she really isn't given too much to actually say.

It's a remarkable film that like 'Rushmore' Wes Anderson's previous film, doesn't shy away from making us uncomfortable and like 'Being John Malkovitch' opens a door to a new kind of film-making and truth about American family life.
Just watch out for those Gypsy Cabs.

© SN. March 2002

Best Film, Best Screenplay, Best Performance

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