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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Review: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

* * * *

Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray

"Family isn't a word... it's a sentence." Such was the tagline for Wes Anderson's 2001 gem The Royal Tenenbaums, a whimsical film about a toxic family that comes together after years of estrangement. Featuring a pitch perfect cast and arguably the most quotable screenplay of the first decade of this century, this instant classic is a movie you can watch again and again without it losing any of its luster.

The Tenenbaums are a legendary family consisting of ne'er do well patriarch Royal (Gene Hackman), his estranged wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston), and their three children: financial genius Chas (Ben Stiller), former tennis star Richie (Luke Wilson), and playwrite Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow). As the film opens the family is in shambles. Chas is suffering the loss of his wife, which has made him paranoid and over-protective of his children, Ari and Uzi. Richie is recovering from a very public mental breakdown prompted by Margot's marriage. Margot is depressed and unhappily married to Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray). All three end up back under Etheline's roof and soon long-absent Royal is there, too, having faked a terminal illness in order to get back into the family's good graces - and because he's broke and has been kicked out of the hotel he's been living in for decades.

While Richie and Ari and Uzi embrace Royal's return to their lives, Chas, from whom Royal stole, and Margot, who has never been allowed to forget that she's adopted, are hostile to him. Also hostile is Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), Etheline's fiancee whose presence has made Royal decide that he wants Etheline back and wants the Tenenbaums to be a family again. Meanwhile, Richie is in love with Margot, and Margot is having an affair with Richie's best friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson, who also takes on co-writing duties), a drug addict and best selling novelist.

Royal's scam eventually gets found out and he has to find a way to make amends with the family, having realized that being a part of it is what he's wanted all along. It's to Anderson and Wilson's credit that this turnabout can occur without seeming maudlin, and it's to Hackman's credit that a character as thoroughly despicable as Royal turns out to be kind of loveable. Hackman is a great actor and I think that his performance here is one of his very finest - right up there with Bonnie and Clyde, The Conversation and Unforgiven. Royal is a true narcissist but, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that he also has heart and a capacity for true affection for the other characters. Watching Hackman and Huston square off against each other - he so smarmy, she so dry - is one of the great delights of the film, so much so that the piece could have been a chamber play between just those two characters and it probably still would have been ridiculously entertaining.

But all of the cast is fantastic, from Glover as Etheline's very proper suitor, to Owen Wilson's manic Eli and Luke Wilson's understated Richie, to Stiller's intensely anxious and angry Chas, to Paltrow's muted but sharp Margot. Murray, of course, is always excellent in an Anderson vehicle and The Royal Tenenbaums is no exception. There is not a single moment or element of this film that I don't absolutely adore. It was my first experience with Anderson's work and it made me a total convert. Whimsy isn't an easy thing to do well in film, but Anderson makes it look effortless time and again. His latest is Moonrise Kingdom - go out and see it and then come home and watch Tenenbaums. Trust me, that'll make for a good day.

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