Family isn't based on sweet kisses on the cheek. Affection between parent and child is not established by saying the magical phrase "I love you." Instead, the strongest conversations often come through in stares and sarcastic remarks. As the old saying goes, you only hurt the ones you love, and family members are usually first in line.
This adage is wholly true for the Tenenbaums, a charismatic dysfunctional family set in a slightly surreal New York City. With an all-star cast and crisp dialogue, this film does what many other films of its genre lack -- it creates a family environment that is entertaining as well as easy to relate to.
The three kids of the family are each geniuses in their own right. Chas (Ben Stiller) started his own business in his early teens by selling Dalmatian rats overseas and reinvesting in real estate. Richie (Luke Wilson) was a champion tennis player, and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is continually reminded that she was adopted, won a grant for playwriting at the ripe age of 14.
But father Royal (Gene Hackman) was kicked out by their mother, Etheline (Angelica Huston), while the kids were still young, due to infidelity and other nasty habits. Eventually, the kids move back home with mom, which prompts Royal to try and connive his way back into the family's good graces.
Categorically, Royal is a selfish prick. He fakes illness to be allowed back in the house. He doesn't know Margot's middle name. He forgets that Chas is a widower. He picks a fight with Etheline's suitor Henry (Danny Glover). But for every idiotic verbal stumble to come out of Royal, he's clearly trying so hard that you want him to gain some kind of affection from his estranged kin. Once Royal enters the picture, his interaction with others pulls us along, and what an engaging ride it is.
Behind the scenes, Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson team up again, after their deservedly successful Rushmore, to pen this masterpiece. (They also wrote Bottle Rocket together.) Wilson rarely gets the credit he deserves, playing characters with little gray matter in such films as The Minus Man and Zoolander. But, because this script is so well written, Wilson's Eli Cash gets to play an intricate, poignant part in the Tenenbaum environment. Having grown up across the street from the eccentric family, he has always wanted to join their ranks. This is a normal jealousy for most children, that the home life of their friends must be better than their own. Only through watching the Tenenbaums unravel can Eli come to grips with his own life.
And Wilson isn't the only actor who shines through the brilliant material. Paltrow is the best she has ever been. Stiller doesn't choose dramatic roles often, but watching his inner resentment strikes a powerful chord. Gene Hackman is the most charismatic jerk ever portrayed on film. The characters and their situations might be old, but this fabulous cast finds a way of adding new and fascinating layers to every moment.
The beautiful sincerity of this collage comes through a rational reactivity rarely found in family dramas. While dire circumstances normally bring people together in a rush to forget their grievances, The Royal Tenenbaums doesn't treat the possibility of death as an excuse for all to be miraculously happy with one another. When Royal moves back into the homestead for treatment of his "illness," none of the Tenenbaums rush into his arms and forget his prior failures. Instead, he is tolerated and taken care of from a distance. It's the little, intelligent details that totally make the picture.
To get into the plot too much further would ruin some of its freshness. Suffice it to say that for all the seriousness presupposed when watching a family story unfold, The Royal Tenenbaums is surprisingly pure entertainment, with well-timed and original humor based on old problems that recur in any family. There is no such thing as forgetting the past, but there is a point at which you can purge your system of anger, laugh at it, and live easier with those blood relations you never got to choose in the first place.
Disney wisely chose to work with Criterion on the Tenenbaums DVD release, a two-disc affair as lavish as the treatment for Rushmore. Anderson's commentary is wry and telling (the Dalmatian mice were made with Sharpies), and the few extras on disc two (including a paltry two deleted scenes) are worth a look as well. Highly recommended.
Meal for a king.