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The star power alone would make many people snatch up The Royal Tenenbaums from the "Gauranteed In-Stock New Releases" section of the local video store even if they knew nothing of the Wes Anderson/Owen Wilson masterpiece Bottle Rocket. BR had much less distribution but remains one of the greatest characterization films around with its combination of strangeness, fantastic acting, and real commitment to the personalities of its dramatis personae. We can also see Anderson's genius in Rushmore, a tale of two strong and odd personalities in a strange competition over a single love interest.
Royal Tenenbaums attempts the same formula as the former works, putting very quirky characters in unusual (you might say "movie-like") situations. To a good extent, the movie works by virtue of the writing alone, which is fundamentally funny, dark and human. Too, the actors are all accomplished in portraying comically quirky people, and their talents work well here.
In other ways, Tenenbaums is like an over-stretched rubber band as it attempts to fit around so many character quirks and the actors who are portraying them. Compared to Bottle Rocket or Rushmore, Tenenbaums is funnier but sloppier. The buttered-up film budget hasn't turned out a toned body, but a fatty fatty boom-ba-latty, if you catch my meaning. On the other hand, the fat is the tastiest part of the bacon. On the other, other hand (perhaps a prosthetic one), those who eat too much bacon have their arteries clog much like the 405 freeway at rush hour. But I digress...
The movie tells the story of the family of Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), a curmudgeonly, unpleasant and unfaithful man who now attempts to pull his estranged family back together in some kind of loving relationship. His children, all extremely gifted, have had their lives disintegrate in tragic mishaps. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) was an award-winning playwright, but now lives under the massive weight of severe depression. Richie (Luke Wilson) was a star tennis player who suddenly lost his touch and dropped from the circuit. Chaz (Ben Stiller) was a brilliant financier, even as an adolescent, but the tragic, bizarre death of his wife has shattered his fragile ego, so he's now extremely high-strung. This last characterization is a good example of the rubber-banding going on here. The plot has to stretch credibility in order to wrap around a convenient reason for Stiller to be such a kook. The circumstances that the plot comes up with are too pat--again, very movie-like--know what I mean?
For another example, the fact that it's about a rich, gifted, white family in New York makes it seems irrelevant somehow. Watching movies about socialites always stretches my patience. Why should I care about these people? It's my own predisposition, but people who live privileged lives cannot embody or address certain realities that exist in my life and the lives of everyone I know.
I remember applying for a job once with a man who was married into the fortune of a huge vegetable-canning company. He and Little Miss Veggies had started a company with the goal of bringing awakening to the planet Earth. When I asked him about the retirement plan, his concept was as vague as the company's mission. He said, "What does that mean, 'retirement'? When you finish working, you do something else." Easy to say for a man sitting on a zillion dollars, no?
Not to obsess, but Bottle Rocket was about real guys. Even the rich kid dealt with the neuroses that that status brings. In Tenenbaums, the wealth is a jungle gym on which the characters can play with impunity: Their personality disorders can be acted to uproarious extremes because they can afford it. Bottle Rocket was subtle with three (really one) key characterizations. Tenenbaums, attempting to create it's quirky dozen, cannot spend time on careful brushstrokes. Like the moment in Bottle Rocket when Luke Wilson's character comments to Owen's character about the clothing choices of the antagonist, saying "Did you see what he was wearing?" meaning, "What awful, unimaginative, conformist fashion." And Owen's character plaintively sighs, "I know," meaning, "How does he manage to dress so stylishly and appropriately?" It's a subtle moment in a longer dialogue, but it frames the entire tragedy of Owen's character.
I would much rather spin off into a lengthy review of Bottle Rocket, but let me just make one or two more comments about Tenenbaums.
First, it's funny. It's a very amusing and entertaining movie, and the filmmaking is interestingly executed. There are several times in the movie when an event is handled as though it were a sudden shift into a dream or a fantasy sequence. But no: the strange event actually happens in the movie, and it is rather surprising. One or two times, the strangeness wasn't taken far enough and the very next scene undid or cancelled the prior action, but more times, the movie carried on in the new, strange vein.
Second, the musical choices were quite pleasing to me. Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo) gets the main musical credit, and you also get tunes by The Ramones, Velvet Underground, Nico, and Nick Drake.
Yes, chuckles happen. I had many as a direct result of Bill Murray's deadpan character and his scientific experiments. This is the genius of Bill Murray, I'd argue. I've never seen him botch a role. Other than that, everyone hands in a decent performance, the script is quite engaging, and the film only really pales by comparison to what Wilson and Anderson have shown themselves capable of in the past.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.