Royal family 

Wes Anderson makes Tenenbaums a novel delight

Young filmmaker Wes Anderson found an enthusiastic audience by crafting character studies of vibrant eccentrics at odds with their surroundings. Would-be master criminal Dignan in Bottle Rocket and industrious prep schooler Max Fisher in Rushmore each unforgettably inhabit worlds all their own.

You might say that Anderson's third film, The Royal Tenenbaums, takes place in that very world, and it's a delightful place to visit. Nearly overstuffed with quirky personalities, wall-to-wall music, cosmopolitan attitude and nearly subliminal sight gags, Tenenbaums enriches Anderson's cinematic palette with a pixilated portrait of a dysfunctional family.

Narrator Alec Baldwin whisks us through the modern history of the Tenenbaum family and how the three children became precocious prodigies, with Chas a business tycoon, Margot a lauded writer and Richie a tennis ace. But even as mother Etheline (Anjelica Huston) pens the book Family of Geniuses about her gifted offspring, she separates from husband Royal (Gene Hackman) and the kids all fall to pieces. Tenenbaums' intro parallels the scene-setting, fast-forward prologues of Raising Arizona or Amelie, and ends with the jubilant sight of a falcon soaring over rooftops to the instrumental strains of "Hey Jude."

The three children become older but are scarcely grown-ups. Chas (Ben Stiller) is a hilariously overprotective father to his sons Ari and Uzi. Richie (Luke Wilson) broods aboard ocean liners year after year following a high-profile meltdown on the tennis courts. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), unhappily married to an older man (Bill Murray), carries on a secret affair with Richie's best friend Eli (co-scripter Owen Wilson).

But when bankrupt Royal reveals he's suffering from a terminal illness, the Tenenbaums reluctantly reunite under their old roof. As Royal tries to make up for a lifetime of neglectful parenting, the siblings struggle to make peace with their inner children and live up to adult responsibilities.

In conceiving Tenenbaums, Anderson cites the influence of classic New Yorker magazine writers, and the film is divided into "chapters" with headings drawn to evoke cartoonist Charles Addams. But the tale and its texture, the placement of tragedy alongside slapstick, most greatly resembles the novels of John Irving, with the script including a few cosmetic similarities to The Hotel New Hampshire.

Anderson not only gives the film a bookish framing device, he inserts quirky details in so many shots that the experience of the film becomes more like reading than simply watching. (That Anderson, like Woody Allen, has a favorite typeface only emphasizes this.) You zero in on peculiar touches like the etching of Jockey shorts hanging in Eli's apartment, or a private chat that takes place in a closet crammed with board games.

The director's love affair for the pop of the '60s and '70s continues. Royal takes Ari and Uzi on a fun, reckless spree to "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," while a Ramones rave-up accompanies a recap of Margot's romantic history. But though the film is filled with love for New York and period detail that predates the 1980s (Izod shirts, long-playing records), the actual time and place are vague, and landmarks like the 375th street Y are clever fictions.

It should be said that Tenenbaums resembles the kind of novel in which the lushness of the prose overshadows the particulars of the plot. Anderson doesn't plumb the depths of his own story, even though it touches on such severe subject matters as suicide, drug abuse and intimations of incest. It also seems too easy to lay the Tenenbaums' problems solely at Royal's feet while leaving the loving but demanding Etheline off the hook. Except for Stiller's peevishness and Hackman's rascally charm, the cast tend to stay poker-faced, making them seem less active than acted-upon. Paltrow, nevertheless, has her own kind of genius for melancholy faces.

The Royal Tenenbaums may not fill all the potential dimensions of its story, but it casts an idiosyncratic spell that lingers even after it's over: Leaving the theater, I felt unusually attentive to little details, like a marquee misspelling "Serendipidy" or an "Interntional" catering truck. Falling under the charms of Anderson's Tenenbaums, we can all feel like part of the family.

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