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Three grown prodigies, all with a unique genius of some kind, and their mother are staying at the family household. Their father, Royal had left them long ago, and comes back to make things right with his family. Written by
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Engaging, ghoulish "Tenenbaums" is comic royalty at its best
They're creepy and they're kooky, mysterious and spooky, they're altogether ooky...
Oops, that's the wrong family, isn't it? Oh well, no matter. The Royal Tenenbaums could very well be considered the First Family of Fright for the new millennium. Their utterly twisted and often hilarious exploits bring to mind memories of that other lovably weird clan.
But in terms of the little matter of family harmony, the difference is like oil and water. Neat? Sweet? Petite? The Tenenbaums? No way.
Director Wes Anderson's oddball showpiece opens in 1979. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman in a performance that is nothing short of amazing), a mustachioed chain smoker like Gomez Addams but nowhere near as attentive a father, is separated from his level-headed wife, Ethel (Anjelica Huston, who, ironically, played the always-cool Morticia in the two "Addams" films). They have three kids: Chas, Richie, and "adopted daughter" Margot.
Royal's blatant lack of interest in his children is the cause of the separation, and he makes no bones about it either. He purposely shoots Chas in the hand with a BB gun and openly criticizes Margot's play, among other things. And his reasoning for the separation? "Well, we made certain sacrifices by having children." Priceless.
After his departure, Ethel takes the children under her wing and they evolve into underage prodigies. Chas is a wealthy banker, Margot a successful playwright, and Richie a tennis pro sporting the nickname "The Baumer."
Disbarred and suddenly kicked out of a hotel room he's occupied for years, Royal, accompanied constantly by his Lurch-like Middle Eastern manservant Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), decides he wants to make amends for his actions by attempting to reunite with his estranged brood...even if it means faking a terminal illness. And that's when this delight of a movie really takes off.
However, things have changed during the 17 years Royal was separated from his family. The children have reached adulthood and are shadows of their former selves. Chas (Ben Stiller), constantly bedecked in red jogging suits - and black for funerals - is a widower with two young boys. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), complete with a Wednesday Addams-style blank glare, is married to a much older man, human study author Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), and she spends six hours a day locked in her bathroom staring listlessly at the TV. Due to a childhood accident, she now has nine and a half fingers. Richie (Luke Wilson), following a humiliating burnout during a televised match, has become a recluse, travelling the world by ship and communicating only through telegrams. Meanwhile, Ethel is engaged to accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), a Teddy bear in a blue suit. Oh, and Richie just happens to be infatuated with his sister Margot.
The well-paced screenplay by Anderson and Owen Wilson (who also has a supporting role as drug-addicted, self-absorbed Western author Eli Cash) does a great job of fleshing out each of the main characters, and as a result, viewers will empathize with some of them, no matter their motives. Although it's not an outright knee-slapping laugh fest, one of "Tenenbaums'" best selling points is its aspect of physical comedy, which actually provides more laughs than the spoken variety and adds to scenes instead of bogging them down, as opposed to random, pointless acts of slapstick that do nothing to advance the plot. The outrageous is turned into the subtle, and the results are hysterical moments such as Cash unexpectedly walking off the set of a talk show, Royal attempting to inject a little delinquency into Chas' straight-arrow boys, plus the funniest moment in the film: Richie's embarrassing swan song on the tennis court. Just imagine, say, Pete Sampras helplessly flinging his racket at his opponent's serve or removing his shoes and socks and sitting forlornly on the ground.
Then there's also a tour of Cash's quarters, complete with a handy stash of marijuana plants, a multitude of adult videos bearing colorful titles such as "Dark and Dirty", and a collection of large, horrid paintings that even Salvador Dali would have considered repulsive.
Throughout the film, nutty covers of books scribed by family members over time randomly pop up and cover the entire screen like wallpaper. In fact, the entire movie is played out much like a book, complete with occasional "chapter introductions" preceding cuts to different scenes. The opening credits are shown in an impossible-to-ignore bold font that nearly usurps the screen.
Although the aforementioned physical comedy is a hoot, the verbal is definitely no slouch. The snappy dialogue is full of witty one-liners, such as Royal's innovative use of adverbs when he describes Chas' late wife as "a terribly attractive woman." When Margot informs Ethel that she's been a smoker for 22 years, Ethel calmly replies, "I think you should quit." It's a no-brainer to say that the acting is through the roof. For such a large cast, there is a striking chemistry among the actors as they become so immersed in their onscreen personalities. In turn, the script is effective at balancing these roles out. Although Hackman is undoubtedly the star of the show, the other family members are given their time in the spotlight, and they are just as memorable as a result.
The execution of the diverse soundtrack helps set the mood for both humorous and foreboding moments, from the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday" to film composer Mark Mothersbaugh's inspirational cover of the Beatles' "Hey Jude." Royal's mischievous outing with Chas' sons is set to Paul Simon's classic "Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard," while Elliott Smith's dark "Needle In The Hay" is used effectively in a very disturbing scene. There's also plenty of classical mixed in with the classic rock, including Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here" (despite the fact that the movie takes place nowhere near Christmas), and my all-time favorite piece, Erik Satie's "Gymnopedie No. 1."
What took some points off the board was the fact that Hackman and Paltrow light up constantly. I despise smoking in movies, but here it's barely significant in the grand scheme of things. "The Royal Tenenbaums" is a terrific film that is easily recommended for those who enjoy quirky, offbeat yet intellectual humor, or for those simply in need of a good laugh...heck, it's great viewing for any warm-blooded human being, for that matter.
Not since the Family Addams has household dysfunction been so much fun. Snap, snap. 9/10
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