The Royal Tenenbaums

"It doesn't look good," says Gene Hackman. He's not referring to this movie, which looks very good indeed and will be a prime contender when it comes to choosing the crown jewel among the films of 2001. Hackman, in the role of Royal Tenenbaum — a prominent litigator until he was disbarred and briefly imprisoned — is referring to his marriage to Etheline (Anjelica Huston), an archaeologist who is the mother of their three prodigy children.

The breakup of the marriage is the core of the film. The kids, now adults, are still dealing with Royal's neglect—they haven't spoken to him in years. Financial whiz Chas (Ben Stiller), a widowed father of two, remembers how his dad shot him with a BB gun. Adopted sister Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), a secret smoker unhappily married to neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray, hurray!), won a $50,000 playwriting grant in the ninth grade—Royal didn't like her play ("It didn't seem believable to me"). Retired tennis champ Richie (Luke Wilson) has spent the past year traveling alone on an ocean liner, hiding his love for his sister, who is having something too woebegone to call a fling with Richie' s friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). In the words of the film's narrator (Alec Baldwin): " . . . All memory of the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums had been erased by two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster."

The Royal Tenenbaums plays like a New Yorker story that J.D. Salinger never wrote. Set in a Manhattan of the imagination (Royal lives at the 375th Street Y), the film opens—in Magnificent Ambersons-style—like a book, with chapter headings. That it works is due to director Wes Anderson, who has made something eccentric and hilarious that can suddenly—or maybe not for hours or even days later—choke you up with emotion. Anderson and his Texas chum Owen Wilson have already written two screenplays (Bottle Rocket and Rushmore) that have won them a cult following. The cult should expand exponentially with Tenenbaums. Not because its cast is starrier but because the film has an accessible maturity. Anderson has been accused of overreaching, of pushing beyond his capabilities. If so, all young filmmakers should have such faults. Anderson has marshaled all the elements of cinema, from costumes to production design, to create a unique world.

Each of the actors is distinctively wonderful, including Kumar Pallana as the Tenenbaum major-domo. And Huston amazes as the mother who doesn't know what to do with a marriage proposal from her bridge partner (Danny Glover) or with an ex-husband telling her that he's dying and wants his family back again. Paltrow seems like someone altogether new as Margot, and Luke Wilson finds the grieving heart in Richie. But this is a triumph for Hackman. They say he can do no wrong as an actor (we won't mention The Replacements), and the complex comic gravity of his performance proves it. Anderson offers no phony uplift for the Tenenbaums or for audiences. But he does know how to take a sad song and make it better. In these troubled times, that's a gift.

From The Archives Issue 483: September 25, 1986