A review of  The Royal Tenenbaums” by Jeanne Aufmuth


Stars: ** 1/2

Rating: R for nudity, language

Run Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes


Owen Wilson is the man of the moment.  He’s currently tearing it up behind cinematic enemy lines, not to mention co-writing and co-starring in this categorically odd tale of eccentric family dysfunction.

The Tenenbaum kids were what you call prodigies.  Young Chas started buying real estate in his early teens, and parlayed his success into an adolescent career as an inventor and international financier.  Margot won a $50,000 Braverman Grant in the ninth grade for her work as a junior playwright.  Richie, the athletic one, was a youth tennis champion who won the U.S. Nationals three years running.  With these premature signs of success, the Tenenbaums’ futures looked rosy indeed.

Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) raised a precocious trio of baby geniuses, but self-destructed as a couple due to Royal’s incessant philandering.  Family life was destroyed, and the kids scattered to the far corners of the country. Cut to the present; Chas (Ben Stiller) is a paranoid widower and father of two young sons,  Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the extracurricular sexually experimenting (and severely depressed) wife of a Freudian psychologist (Bill Murray), and Richie (Luke Wilson) is sailing the seven seas, his tennis career up in smoke due to his uncontrollable love for the one woman he can’t have – his sister.

Welcome to the, uh, wonderful world of the Tenenbaums.  As constructed by Wilson and co-writer/director Wes Anderson (“Rushmore”), this is quirky theater infused with comic highlights, and an unfortunate number of lowlights.  The pivotal event centers around Royal’s eviction from his permanent digs at the Lindbergh Palace Hotel, and his subsequent  declaration that he has six months to live (cancer). Royal expresses a desire to rekindle a relationship with his estranged family, and insists that he come back home to die.  An impromptu reunion commences, with the foibles and follies of this emotionally impaired clan standing in for humor.

Every frame of this personal odyssey is replete with tiny, colorful mementos meant to breathe three-dimensional life into the relentlessly suffering players, and it works like a charm.  Clothes, hair and homes are refreshingly eccentric, screaming 70’s Izod cool.  Genius gone sour is a wicked target, and it’s effective for more than half the running time.  When it fails to catch, it lands with a resounding thud. 

. Luke Wilson is in fine form, as is brother Owen as the Tenenbaums’ boy-next-door.  Paltrow moons about with nary a smile, dragging down the film’s energy.  Stiller parlays paranoia into comedy, but best of show goes to Hackman, a Royal pain of a patriarch who clearly relishes the opportunity to break out of his stalwart stereotype.  Alternately deadpan and lively, “Tenenbaums” is a quirky hit-and-miss affair.