Main cast: Gene Hackman (Royal O’Reilly Tenenbaum), Anjelica Huston (Etheline Tenenbaum), Ben Stiller (Chas Tenenbaum), Gwyneth Paltrow (Margot Helen Tenenbaum), Luke Wilson (Richie Tenenbaum), Owen Wilson (Elijah Cash), Danny Glover (Henry Sherman), Bill Murray (Raleigh St Clair), Seymour Cassel (Dusty), Kumar Pallana (Pagoda), Grant Rosenmeyer (Ari Tenenbaum), and Jonah Meyerson (Uzi Tenenbaum)
Director: Wes Anderson
Oh, Wes Anderson. If you ask me, he’s the Peter Pan of today’s movie makers, and no, that’s not exactly a full-blown compliment. As evident in The Royal Tenenbaums, he can be so in love with his own ideas and concepts that sometimes he loses me. I didn’t get Rushmore, to be honest, but this one, faults and all, still manages to win me over.
Can I say that this is one of the most bittersweet family comedy I have ever seen? Of course, I don’t go out that much, but through the brilliant use of music, quirky lines, and Gene Hackman, this movie has me waltzing along to whatever music Mr Anderson is listening to in his head.
Meet the Tenenbaums. The patriarch, Royal, is a womanizing, callous, and mostly absent father who has no idea how much his negligence had wrecked havoc on his three children. His wife Ethel eventually kicks him out of the house, but they are never officially divorced.
They have three children: Chas, Margot, and Richie. All three are prodigies. Chas is a business whiz, Margot the literary one, and Richie the artist and tennis jock. But they grow into adulthood as really screwed-up people.
Today, Chas wears only red jumpsuits (I still don’t know why, is it because he feels he need to run at any time soon?) and dresses his two sons Uzi and Ari the same. Still unable to get over the death of his wife, he becomes a paranoid control freak, sure that death will claim his sons any time soon and he must hold vigorous fire drills to prevent that.
Margot is married to a slavishly adoring shrink, but she never forgets that she is the adopted one (Royal never lets her forget it either). Ethel’s browbeating and Royal’s laying the guilt trip thick have her turning cold, self-absorbed, and secretive. How does Gwyneth Paltrow get that lovely dark kohl rings around her eyes, by the way? I love that look!
Richie has been in love with Margot all his life. Margot’s marriage to her shrink hubby has ruined him so badly, he never recovered and now spends time sulking in his globe-trotting ship. He has no idea that his best friend Eli, now a successful author of cowboy stories and a man who overcompensates his inadequacies by overemphasizing his cowboy outfits, is having affair with Margot.
Everything comes to a head when Royal discovers that (a) he is broke and homeless and (b) Ethel is dating and maybe marrying Henry Sherman (a nice touch of multiracial romance where his race is never an issue between her and him) – the latter thanks to the loyal rat Pagoda, the Tenenbaum staff who is in Royal’s pockets. He decides to fake up a severe case of stomach cancer and weasel his way back to his estranged family.
Meanwhile, the three miserable kids slink back home one by one, unable to cope with their adult lives and needing Mommy. Together again for the first time in 17 years, they will break the roof of the Tenenbaum house down.
Royal is not an entirely likable man, but there’s no denying that Gene Hackman plays him like a pro: he oozes charm that his victims find hard to resist even as they know that he will hurt them bad with his selfishness. But soon even he will learn that he is not immune to the hurt he inflicts on his family. Soon he, like Eli, too wants to be a Tenenbaum in all the way that matters.
But there’s no fighting Royal’s charms. I smile, maybe even mist over a little as he teaches Ari and Uzi to shoplift and hijack a ride on the back of a garbage truck. Mr Anderson and Owen Wilson, who wrote the script, made parent-child angst funny and cathartic – I empathize with Chas, heck, I’m Chas in a way – no matter how resentful the child can be of the father, in the end, the bond is still there.
But surprisingly, the most damaged of the three is Richie, the one Royal always favored. The reasons are not spelled out, but what the heck, it’s always complicated, isn’t it, these annoying demons we all have with our parents? Luke Wilson’s usual deadpan face is used to maximum effectiveness – the contrast of his wooden expression and the shockingly candid way he tries to destroy himself is indeed shocking and macabre.
Margot doesn’t have much to do except to smoke and look bored, but she comes to life in a beautiful scene with Richie, when like kids all over again, they huddle together in Richie’s tent as the Rolling Stones’s She Smiled Sweetly plays. It’s beautiful, heartbreaking, and it tears me up.
The movie falters a lot when it tries to redeem Royal by doing a complete 180-turnaround. It rings false – what motivates Royal to get an honest job even before Richie tries to kill himself? – but in the end, I don’t care. This movie ends with the perfect note, and I walk out of the movie with music in my head. Aye, Wes Anderson may go overboard with the quirky self-indulgence sometimes, but me, I will dance to his tune here just fine. Damn him for making a movie that affects me so personally even as I laugh at the absurdity of it all. I’m too old for soul-searching.