Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, January 4, 2002

Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman, right) feigns an illness so he can move back in with his family in the dramatic comedy "The Royal Tenenbaums." The move upsets his family, from left, son Chas (Ben Stiller), grandchildren Uzi (Jonah Meyerson) and Ari (Grant Rosenmeyer) and daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow).

‘Royal Tenenbaums’
is surprisingly unlikable

By Scott Vogel

Time was, not long ago, when "The Royal Tenenbaums" was going to be the prestige hit of the fall. It had a quirky director in critics' darling Wes Anderson ("Rushmore"), who'd impressed before with his seamless blending of a vintage pop score with oddball portraiture. "Royal" promised a hilariously skewed take on family life that only Anderson (along with his writing partner Owen Wilson) could deliver, and one that would presumably bring a flood of Oscar nominations and hours of kaffeeklatsch disputation in its wake.

Instead, "The Royal Tenenbaums" turns out to be a desperately mediocre movie whose mediocrities are not well disguised by either its absurd plot or the somewhat embarrassing barrage of Hollywood star power on display.

'The Royal Tenenbaums'

Rated R

Playing at Consolidated Kahala, Kapolei, Mililani, Pearlridge & Ward; Signature Dole Cannery, Pearl Highlands & Windward


Rather like the cocktail party guest who briefly impresses us and then can't stop trying to impress us, Anderson's movie turns out to be more unlikable than it should have been, an experience from which you long to escape.

This is due in part to the faux fairy-tale quality of "Tenenbaums" (in fact, the film is presented as a series of chapters, though from a book that never has, nor ever will, exist). Insofar as there is a story here, it involves charting the slow and completely unbelievable rise and fall of the Tenenbaum family, the latter precipitated by the divorce of parents Etheline and Royal (Anjelica Huston and Gene Hackman).

Early scenes show the prodigious talents of each of the three children. Chas (played in later years by Ben Stiller) was a teenage real estate mogul in the Alex P. Keaton vein. Now he's a single father of two boys named Ari and Uzi. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) achieved fame at a young age by the unlikely route of playwriting, and Richie (Luke Wilson) became a world-ranked tennis player before a bizarre nervous breakdown one day on the court.

Most of the film concerns Royal's attempts to repair his strained relationships with his children, something he hopes to accomplish by announcing that he is suffering from a terminal illness -- therefore, little time remains for a rapprochement. This ruse gets him back into the Tenenbaum household along with the three children, who have also moved back home for various reasons.

Thus the stage is set for domestic comedy or domestic drama or domestic something, but "Tenenbaums" turns out to have no flair for domesticity of any sort, settling instead for a series of set pieces that evince little insight into family dynamics. Margot cavorts in secret with a cowboy novelist (Owen Wilson) while her befuddled neurologist husband (Bill Murray) tags along helplessly. Etheline falls prey to the charms of her accountant (Danny Glover), to the consternation of Royal, who tries to bust them up. And so on.

It isn't really fair (or necessary, for that matter) to recap the "Tenenbaums" plot because finally this is a production designer's film, a sound designer's film and, to a lesser extent, an actor's film. Together they've created a New York that is comically counterfeit and yet still manages to project some of that city's unique charm. A collage, for instance, that splashes together a Manhattan garbage truck, Ben Stiller and a recording of "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" induces a delirious giddiness, a lightness that much of "Tenenbaums" unfortunately lacks.

And Gene Hackman gallops through the film in impressive fashion, grinning his way through scene after scene, a cunning distraction from the proceedings. He, like Anjelica Huston, seems poised and ready to bring a third dimension to one of Anderson's characters, should more than two ever happen to come his way.

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