Cinema Signal:

. "The Royal Tenenbaums"

Here's a film that could only have been made by one person. It's a fulfillment of the term, "auteur", in which the nature of the film, that is, its conception, spirit and storytelling style, comes from one mind. When this happens, it's almost a miracle of dealmaking in which a studio's visions don't intrude upon the filmmaker's. There was no such dilution of intentions here. And the man behind it, the auteur, is Wes Anderson. He cowrote it with Owen Wilson, who acts in it, but he directed it himself. His previous effort, "Rushmore", was unique also, but not nearly as successful from an ironic-comedic point of view.

The concept itself is enough to get the fun going. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), a man ageing and facing mortality, decides that his primary goal is to reclaim his family, to whatever extent possible. Which doesn't hold a lot of promise since he's been an absent dad for so many years and this didn't help the psyches of his prodigy offspring. They are all quirky in one manner or other, almost to defy balance.

Even more challenging is the reaction of his wife Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Huston) whose negligence in legally ending the marriage is no sign of any kind of rehabilitation. She falters when he tells her he's dying of cancer, revealing a certain residue of feelings for the father of her children, but is enraged when he makes it sound like a made up story to elicit sympathy.

Whatever reluctance she has with the man that abandoned the family so long ago is increased by the proposal of marriage from her trusted accountant, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) for whom she finds she has some feelings. This may be affection and loyalty, but at her age, these are not minuses.

The Tenenbaum children include Chas (Ben Stiller), the financial genius who was a millionaire at an early age and whose hatred for his father is deep and enduring since his bonds went missing from his safe when he was barely a teenager. The Tenenbaum grandchildren, Ari and Uzi (Grant Rosenmeyer and Jonah Meyerson) are Chas' and they carry no ill will for grandpa, providing his main point of contact with the family. Royal capitalizes on the fun part of his grandfatherness by taking them on sprees that are educational and disconcertingly advanced for their years.

There's Richie (Luke Wilson) and Eli (Owen Wilson: cowriter of the screenplay) and hardly least, Margot Helen Tenenbaum, the adopted one. Gwyneth Paltrow plays her with dark eyeshadow, symptoms of social and emotional withdrawal except when it suits her purposes, and a fetching allure despite it all. She is married to a slightly pompous Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) whose natural or pretended indifference to his surrounding realities are jolted to the core by Margot's desertion of him and his abode.

Royal's sidekick is Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), a Pakistani who once knifed him and then took him to the hospital for a recovery. Ever since, he's been his trusted aide, enabler and confidant. If you don't find the rest of this somewhat hilarious, this relationship, based on some kind of mutual benefit that's hard for the mainstream among us to pinpoint, should do it.

However... in the final analysis, there's something very labored about the movie. Possibly, it's because there are too many Tenenbaums. We suspect that Royal originally didn't have so many children. It plays as though a couple have been tacked on for deal making purposes. How this might have been developed is when Owen Wilson came on as cowriter. Naturally, as an actor, he wanted a role. And, if he had a role, why not one for his brother Luke, as well? It may not be an accident that these two roles are the least realized as essential to the character of the family. There is an appended quality about them, as in an inconclusive attempt to weave these two brothers into the fabric of the Tenenbaums. Just a guess.

Alec Baldwin narrates the work, as necessary, his voice intoning total conviction in the project second to no one else in the visible cast. And, whatever else you can say about this piece of work, there's no denying that it's a project of raging individualism and total dedication for all involved. It's not for everyone, but for an audience in tune with this borderline brand of comedy, it's something to see.

Estimated cost: $21,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $50,000,000.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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