Watching "The Royal Tenenbaums" is as close as we're likely to get to being kidnapped by extraterrestrials and spirited away to their strange world. No, nasty probes are not in evidence, but there's no doubt you're in the presence of an extremely sophisticated yet completely alien reality.
Director Wes Anderson, who also co-wrote the "Royal" script with actor Owen Wilson, unquestionably has one of America's most distinctive filmmaking sensibilities, but that is part of the problem. As my mother used to say, too good is no good.
It's rare, frankly, to see a movie that lives inside its own head as completely as this one does. It's like going to a party where everyone speaks a version of a familiar language that can't quite be understood. The words star Gene Hackman has used to describe his character--"very peculiar"--apply to this entire enterprise as well.
Densely imagined, with the smallest character tendency and the tiniest on-set knickknack predetermined in almost fiendish detail, "The Royal Tenenbaums" is such a hermetic film that the Coen brothers' work seems practically Capra-esque by comparison. The difficulty is that it is hard to find any connection points with such an insular, forbidding style, hard to find the handholds that make the climb inside possible.
"The Royal Tenenbaums" is a bleak farce set in an imaginary New York-ish city with landmarks like "the 375th Street Y" and "the Valenzuela Bridge." It's not about a royal clan like the Windsors but about one man's family, the wife and children of Royal Tenenbaum, who at one time all resided in an enormous red brick pile that seems imaginary as well but turns out to be an actual house in Harlem not far from where Ralph Ellison wrote "The Invisible Man."
When the film's main action opens, only Royal's estranged wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) lives in the house. Royal (Hackman), a once-prominent litigator who has been disbarred and imprisoned, has been gone for 20 years. So, too, are the three Tenenbaum children. Once they were child prodigies, but after their father left, that youthful brilliance, a literary voice-over tells us, "was subsequently erased by two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster."
Eldest son Chas (Ben Stiller), once a financial mastermind, is now, after the plane-crash death of his wife, reduced to running his two young sons through constant disaster drills. Daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) won a major playwriting grant when she was in the ninth grade, but now she's married to neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) and spends hours at a time sulking and soaking in the tub. Youngest son Richie (Luke Wilson) was a tennis sensation who won the U.S. Nationals three years in a row. After a much-publicized breakdown, he now travels the world on tramp steamers. His childhood best friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) is the group's only success, having somehow morphed into a cowboy-hat-wearing literary celebrity.
In one of those movieland coincidences, all three adult Tenenbaum siblings contrive to move back to their childhood home just when their archeologist mother is considering a marriage proposal from her accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). At the very same time, father Royal is being evicted from his longtime quarters at the Lindbergh Palace Hotel and needing a place to stay as well. Given the general disrepute in which he's held, Royal needs to do some conniving to get a room at this particular inn.
His quest is not just lodging; he wants to win his family back, to worm his way into their good graces once again. The question is not just whether he can do it, it is, more to the point, whether anyone can be made to care. For one of "Royal's" drawbacks is that its characters come so completely out of a very specific sensibility that a sameness is created--they seem almost identical. It's as if the irritating Max Fischer character from Anderson's "Rushmore" has, taken over the personalities of everyone in this picture.
Adding to this difficulty is that as a director Anderson has carefully and intentionally leeched the energy out of almost every performance, leaving actors like Murray and Glover with pitifully little to do. His sensibility is also impervious to any outward show of emotion, the idea apparently being that the less feeling his film shows, the more we will be forced to supply it ourselves to redress the balance. It's a nice idea, but it doesn't work.
Though each succeeding project makes Anderson more and more of a media celebrity, it's hard to fight the feeling that his first picture, the neglected "Bottle Rocket," was his most satisfying. It had the unmistakable strangeness that is the filmmaker's trademark, but, perhaps because writer-director James Brooks was involved as an executive producer, it was more accessible, opened more of a window to the outside world. With each succeeding film, that window has been closing. It's now shut tight, and, not surprisingly, the atmosphere is stifling.
MPAA rating: R, for some language, sexuality/nudity and drug content. Times guidelines: more weird than overtly sexual, but with a few kinky moments.
'The Royal Tenenbaums'
Gene Hackman...Royal Tenenbaum
Anjelica Huston...Etheline Tenenbaum
Ben Stiller...Chas Tenenbaum
Gwyneth Paltrow...Margot Tenenbaum
Luke Wilson...Richie Tenenbaum
Owen Wilson...Eli Cash
Bill Murray...Raleigh St. Clair
Danny Glover...Henry Sherman
Released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Wes Anderson. Producers Wes Anderson, Barry Mendel, Scott Rudin. Executive producers Rudd Simmons, Owen Wilson. Screenplay Wes Anderson & Owen Wilson. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman. Editor Dylan Tichenor. Costumes Karen Patch. Music Mark Mothersbaugh. Production design David Wasco. Art director Carl Sprague. Key set decorator Sandy Reynolds Wasco.
In limited release.