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The Royal Tenenbaums

Directed by Wes Anderson with Gene Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover, Ben Stiller, Angelica Huston, and Bill Murray, 109 minutes, color, rated R, 2001

Blu-ray cover
Cover of Blu-ray

By John Delmar

Royal Tenenbaum, like King Lear, is "a poor old man, as full of grief as age." Facing his mortality, he wishes his three grown offspring to "forget and forgive."

But Wes Anderson's "The Royal Tenenbaums" was not modeled on Lear. Anderson ("Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore") and his college buddy Owen Wilson, co-author of the screenplay, were inspired by J. D. Salinger's fictional Glass family. While perhaps not as fragile as Glass, most of the Tenenbaums seem depressed enough to swim into the abyss with the bananafish.

Much of the film is like an extended New Yorker cartoon, with various tableaux of urban angst and malaise. But, like New Yorker cartoons, the film is clever, witty, urbane, sophisticated, and sometimes a bit glib.

The family's story is told in the chapters of a Salingeresque novel, the pathetic tale of Royal and his three promising, but failed, children. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) wrote plays and designed scenery as young girl. Now she soaks like a teabag in her tub, watching mindless television for hours. Her eyes are lined with so much black make-up, she looks like a catatonic racoon. Her brother Chas (Ben Stiller) was a budding entrepreneur, dreaming up schemes like breeding and selling Dalmatian-spotted white mice. Chas has regressed into a neurotic mess dressed perpetually in running gear and fearing imminent danger to himself and his two mini-me sons. Richie (Luke Wilson, brother of Owen) could have been a major tennis pro, but choked up during a tournament and, while retaining his Borg sweat-band, floats literally at sea, aimless and lost.

The mother of this dysfunctional brood is Etheline (Angelica Huston), whose romantic interest is no longer Royal, but rather her stuffy, somewhat prissy accountant (Danny Glover, playing against type after so many buddy action films).

Royal (played brilliantly by Gene Hackman) tries to win back the love and acceptance of his long-neglected family. Hackman is perfect as a smarmy tort lawyer. He's the kind of attorney whose every pore exudes oleagenous insincerity. Hackman gets to ham it up, while much of the rest of the cast, presumably depressed and seriously deficient in serotonin, stumble around in zombie trances.

The setting of the film is obviously New York City, with various New York backgrounds, but transformed into Everycity (perhaps to give the film broader appeal?). The Tenenbaums stroll through a strange ersatz New York, where everything familiar has an unfamiliar name.

The Tenenbaums frequent the 375th St. Y, presumably similar to the 92nd St. Y, only further uptown. They live on Archer Street, which looks a lot like Convent Avenue and 144th St. in Hamilton Heights. And Royal resides, and later works, at an elegant hotel, the Lindbergh Palace, that any New Yorker could identify as the Waldorf-Astoria.

The film has a boomer-hip sound track of John Lennon, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones (another way, besides late night TV ads, to repackage 60's and 70's hits?). Much attention is paid to minor details-- the art on the walls, the wallpaper, the games on the shelves of a closet. And like a MAD magazine illustration, there are several throw-away visual jokes, like a taxi with a "Gypsy Cab" logo on its roof.

Although this film is about a family, it isn't exactly a family film, unless your family savors graphic bloody suicides, rampant drug use, various sexual situations (poor Gywneth, or a body double, had to run the gamut of Penthouse fantasies), four-letter profanities and, oh yes... inter-sibling incest. But this is all in good fun. In the end, most of the problems of the family Tenenbaum could be cured with a good shrink and lots of psychopharmacology.

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