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Family Dysfunction at Its Best

‘Tenenbaums’ Rules with Subtle Comedy

By Pey-Hua Hwang

staff writer

Directed by Wes Anderson

Written by Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson

Starring Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow

Rated R

Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums is a movie full of subtle chuckles. Featuring a large cast of actors who are all well known on their own, The Royal Tenenbaums succeeds in producing some wonderful ensemble moments.

The movie is set up like the reading of a modern fairy tale book. Each set of events that befall the unabashedly eccentric family of characters and the poor souls that they involve themselves with is introduced by Alec Baldwin’s narration of the first sentence of a chapter of a storybook titled Royal Tenenbaums. The movie’s first chapter begins by introducing the family Tenenbaum, which consists of the absentee father Royal (Gene Hackman), persevering mother Etheline (Angelica Huston), and the three children who were child prodigies that have grown up to be dysfunctional adults: Chas (Ben Stiller), financial wizard and breeder of Dalmatian mice; Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), playwright and closet smoker; and Richie (Owen Wilson), tennis prodigy with an unhealthy, obsessive love for his adopted sister Margot. Eli (Luke Wilson) is the boy who lived across the street but always wanted to be a Tenenbaum, who has grown up to be a drug-abusing author of historical novels of questionable quality.

Most movies with such eccentric characters would then proceed to bring them all together for a family reunion of sorts and make them sort out all of their problems and conclude the movie with all the families problems smoothed over and a happy family picture. However, The Royal Tenenbaums refuses to take the easy way out, and the audience appreciates the scenic route to an ending that hearkens to an earlier scene in the movie when Royal talks about what sort of epitaph he would like to have on his tombstone.

In fact, Royal has many such scenes where Gene Hackman, who is clearly enjoying playing the part of a self-centered, childish, old man, makes blunt comments about delicate issues, but does it with such abandon and charm that the audience smiles to themselves instead of hating his character. With the help of his sidekick Pagoda (Kumar Pallana, who comes quite close to stealing several scenes) Royal is delightfully despicable as he fakes stomach cancer so he can move back into his house after being kicked out of the Lindbergh Palace Hotel, where he had lived for 22 years, and then takes his grandsons Ari and Uzi out on jaunts like riding on the back of the garbage truck, which would scandalize their father, Chas.

Chas, aside from disliking his father, is paranoid because his wife died in a plane crash and keeps himself and his sons in red jumpsuits so he can keep track of them more easily. Royal clearly favored Richie over Chas when they were young and even shot Chas with a pellet gun when they were on the same team, which founded Chas’ deep antagonism towards his father. However, Royal eventually does make amends with Chas in a most unexpected gesture of solicitude.

Whereas Chas is clearly a very short fuse, Margot is the epitome of ennui. She is the object of the affections of Eli, Richie, and Raleigh Sinclair (Bill Murray), her oft-cuckolded husband. She doesn't actually love any of them except Richie and actually has several preposterous exploits, and also has only nine fingers because of an unfortunate accident. Her character is probably the least developed, however, it is interesting to observe the titles of the plays she is pictured constantly reading and notice how her fashion sense is exactly the same from childhood to adulthood.

Finally, Richie and Eli are just eccentric. Both of them have a “special” taste in art. Eli’s is definitely in part drug influenced, while Richie’s consists exclusively of pictures of Margot. His pet falcon Mordicae also serves the purpose of one of the few moments which approach sappiness.

Etheline’s marriage to Howard Sherman (Danny Glover), the family accountant who is everything that Royal never was, mainly dependable, could easily have fallen into the sappy category, but it is disrupted in a way that stretches the idea of suspension of disbelief to its limits. However, The Royal Tenenbaums is a fairy tale set in reality. Its collection of vignettes depicting both the fragility and the resilience of the human condition while keeping the audience chuckling instead of warding off the gag reflex makes this movie worth watching, if only to try and catch all of the details hidden in the background.