“Anyone interested in grabbin’ a couple burgers and hittin’ the cemetery?” Classic lines just whiz off Gene Hackman’s lips, one after another, in “The Royal Tenenbaums.” But this one might best capture the blend of comedy and morbidity on offer in Wes Anderson’s latest eccentric comedy.
Comedy seems an inadequate word, however, for what Anderson keeps pulling off with increasing mastery. His last film, the magnificent “Rushmore,” was undoubtedly hilarious but ended up an oddly moving experience as well. Coming off a film so universally acclaimed, Anderson and his co-writer (and star dude) Owen Wilson spent two years wrestling their New York story about a family of geniuses into filmable form.
The result is that most dreaded thing, a story of redemption. It’s also a true, teeming ensemble piece, though ensembles – at least since “The Big Chill,” which this most assuredly is not – have rarely sold at the boxoffice. If a Hollywood formula were used, “The Royal Tenenbaums” might equate to something like Amélie meets Ghost World, the two other high-octane quirkathons of this strange movie year. “The Royal Tenenbaums” is highly and intelligently amusing stuff, “arty” in the best, most playful sense of the word. And the cast is a miracle, top to bottom.
Anderson and Wilson wrote the role of patriarch Royal Tenenbaum specifically for Gene Hackman, and have been repaid with a great career-capper of a performance (even if “The Royal Tenenbaums” seems to be Hackman’s nineteenth movie this year). Old Man Royal is a big bruising sonofabitch of a role. Hackman makes you love him, but Royal is still the most selfish bastard in all Manhattan, who skipped out on his long-suffering wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) and their three children some twenty years ago.
The children, geniuses all, haven’t exactly gotten over their father’s callous rejection. Chas (Ben Stiller), a finance whiz and real estate mogul in his youth, now does nothing but wear red Adidas track suits and figure out ways to protect his sons Ari (Grant Rosenmeyer) and Uzi (Jonah Meyerson) from the dangers of the outside world. Richie (Luke Wilson), a former teen tennis pro and Bjorn Borg lookalike, has kept the headband but lost everything else and currently resides on a steamship, literally and permanently at sea. And Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), a sullen adoptee, was a Pulitzer-winning playwright in the ninth grade who now lives only to watch TV and sneak cigarettes while her fusty but caring husband (Bill Murray) lingers cluelessly outside her bathroom door.
Into this mælstrom of misery blunders Royal, who claims that stomach cancer has given him only six weeks in which to set things right with his wrecked family. One by one, his misfit offspring return to the vibrantly painted brownstone in which they were raised and, if they’re to be believed, ruined. Faced with these three neurotics, Royal’s redemption won’t come easy.
As dreary as it may sound, all of the above is mined for every last nugget of comedy. Self-consciously novelistic in the telling – all the characters, even the courtly family accountant played by Danny Glover, have written books on various recondite subjects – and meticulously designed down to the tiniest detail, “The Royal Tenenbaums” nevertheless works best as a finely tuned laugh machine, with Hackman playing the balls-out ringleader. Like Ghost World, this is quite proudly a comedy for smart folks, and the collective I.Q. that went into “The Royal Tenenbaums” dwarfs most other filmmakers (and certainly all the executives) in Hollywood combined.
We’ll hear it said by many that Anderson has grown far too smarty-pants clever for his own good. Certainly his exacting control over every element will strike some as nauseatingly twee. For instance: Paltrow doesn’t just smoke; Anderson takes to show that by God she smokes unfiltered Sweet Aftons. And no one here seems to drive – rusted-out old gypsy cabs (in Andersonville, the cab company is actually called Gypsy Cabs) are the only way to make it to the “375th Street Y.” This is an insular world of pink slacks and purple turtlenecks, a contemporary setting fitted out with ancient TVs and computers, all of them probably borrowed from Anderson’s personal collection. Oh, and don’t leave out the record players.
Attention must be paid to Anderson’s masterful way with music; speaking of genius, music supervisor Randall Poster deserves some kind of award for his fancy footwork here. Anderson is nothing if not a soul-deep rock fetishist, and he never falls back on the obvious Hollywood choices (“My Girl,” anyone?). “Rushmore” had one of the better song soundtracks of the ’90s, but here Anderson outdoes even High Fidelity and Almost Famous in the music-geek department. But he doesn’t just lard his soundtrack with oldies – he slows scenes down or speeds them up to make them work with his selections, creating lovely little mood pieces within the overall scheme. The Ramones, the Clash, the Beach Boys, Elliott Smith, Donovan, Nico and Pauls McCartney and Simon all show up for the party. They even make room for Erik Satie. And as if all the songs weren’t enough, composer Mark Mothersbaugh, the big brain behind Devo, has become quite the composer in his own right.
As with a couple of 2001’s other visionary works, Moulin Rouge and Waking Life, you’ll forgive “The Royal Tenenbaums” its excesses because you’ve never seen anything like it – unless, of course, you’re one of the lucky few who’ve seen “Bottle Rocket” and Rushmore. Sure, the eccentricity knows no bounds. True, it can all be a bit anal and airless at times. But somehow Anderson creates his little worlds in a way that, while consistently precious, is never pretentious. It’s too much fun for that. And while every member of his cast, including regulars Seymour Cassel and the inimitable Kumar Pallana, are dressed like buffoons and made to play characters who aren’t particularly recognizable as human beings, they all manage to do something like career-best work.
Therein lies the magic. Wes Anderson simply has a unique way of looking at the world, and through him the ridiculous is made sublime. He has a hell of a distinctive style for someone his age. It would appear he might even be some kind of goddamn genius himself.