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The Royal Tenenbaums: The Criterion Collection

Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Starring Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow,
Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson,
Danny Glover, and Bill Murray

Written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson
Directed by Wes Anderson

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                   

As audacious, quirky, stylish and surprising wunderkind-imagined epics of family dysfunction go, The Royal Tenenbaums is second only to, maybe, Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 carousel of pain, Magnolia. Although the two films differ greatly in tone and detail, they share so many similarities as to suggest perhaps a conspiracy of cinematic karma.

Like Magnolia, The Royal Tenenbaums is the third film from a young and unique auteur with the last name Anderson. Both Wes and Paul Thomas (unrelated, except by some mysterious cosmic link which has them locked on parallel paths since their births in 1970) made their feature directorial debuts during indie-crazed 1996 with brash and unusual stories about wayward young men flirting with lives of crime (Wes with the breezy, hilarious and bittersweet Bottle Rocket; P.T. with the brooding, engrossing and impeccable Hard Eight). Both Andersons followed up their promising debuts with bracingly ambitious tours-de-force of vision and craft in two very different coming-of-age epics about immature young men with prodigious gifts, Rushmore (Wes) and Boogie Nights (P.T.).

That brings us to Feature Film # 3, on which these unlikely fraternal twins both attempt to best their sophomore masterpieces with sprawling stories of intimate heartbreak, as enacted by incredible ensemble casts and doused in generous and imaginative and, at times, over-the-top style, and ultimately released in special two-disc DVD editions.

Like Magnolia (reviewed here...) The Royal Tenenbaums' weakest element comes first. Both films begin with long, winding montages of breathless (but necessary) introductory exposition, during which their aggressive generosities of spirit require some adjustment. However, unlike P.T. Anderson's dark quirkiness, Wes's approach is diametrically bright, and during TRT's opening 15 minutes it's almost possible to mistake the film's rich and diverse flavor as overbearingly, singularly saccharine (and retchingly so, for viewers averse to untempered cuteness). But as Anderson (Wes) introduces the brilliant and bizarre Tenenbaum family, he gradually, and jarringly, bites through the candied coating of his eccentric and dazzling production detail for a frank, tender consideration of each family member's self-destructive desperations. Anderson (Wes) approaches the Tenenbaums like an aficionado of exotic butterflies: gently capturing them, marveling at their unique beauty, patiently examining their odd habits, and finally coming to an understanding of who they are, how they work, and why.

*          *          *

Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is an incorrigible sonofabitch. A rich and soulless shyster who thinks only of himself (and very little at that), Royal blithely walks out on his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) and three prodigious children without a blink. Twenty years later, broke and defamed, he wants them all back. So he does what any long-practicing fraud would do: He fakes a case of terminal cancer.

The youngest child, Richie (a former tennis star, "The Baumer," known for his spectacular on-court breakdown, played by Luke Wilson) welcomes his estranged father back into the family fold. Eldest sibling Chas (Ben Stiller), an aggressive entrepreneur, still bristles with enmity for his father's treacherous and careless ways and, mourning the tragic loss of his wife a year earlier, wants to protect his two bright children from Royal's destabilizing influence. Meanwhile, Royal's adopted daughter, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), a former celebrated child playwright with a wooden finger and a habit for dead-end relationships, regards his return with the same indifference he afforded her during her youth. Also suspicious of Royal's reemerging presence is Etheline's new fiancee, sensitive accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover).

Although it takes patience for The Royal Tenenbaums to sink in, shed its artifice, and begin to breathe, what follows is nearly priceless. Anderson's screenplay (co-written by Owen Wilson, who also appears as Tenenbaum family-tagalong and mediocre literary sensation Eli Cash) is brimming with fresh and funny details. Occasionally Anderson's devotion to specific visual and comic rhythms rubs awkwardly against credibility, and at times the rampant quirkiness threatens to overwhelm the story's emotion and humanity. But in such a marvelous creation, such trespasses are easily forgiven.

The excellent cast, which also includes Bill Murray as Margot's neglected neurologist husband, perfectly balances the conflicting demands of eccentricity with empathy. Although all are remarkable, both Ben Stiller and Luke Wilson, who shoulder the film's most poignant and moving moments, transcend prior expectations and emerge as particularly robust and sensitive actors, capable of far more than just their natural charm and magnetism. Also featured are Kumar Pallana as Royal's faithful sidekick Pagoda, and Alec Baldwin as the voice behind the film's storybook narration.

*          *          *

While The Royal Tenenbaums suffers slightly in comparison to its exquisite predecessor Rushmore, it is still, in its flaws (just like P.T. Anderson's Magnolia) an imperfect masterpiece of aspiration, invention and feeling.

Disc One

Criterion presents Wes Anderson's third film in a great anamorphic transfer (2.40:1), with DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio tracks, plus a rather subdued commentary by the director, during which he discusses inspirations for the film (from The Magnificent Ambersons to The Rockford Files), his careful use of song scoring (from Jackson Browne-penned Nico tunes to tracks from old Charlie Brown cartoons), to his evolving collaboration with friend and co-writer Owen Wilson.

Disc Two

Introduction by Ben Stiller (:13) — And with his face covered in shaving cream, no less.

Scrapbook — Extensive stills gallery; storyboards scribbled into the margins of a script; N.Y. Public Radio interview with artist Miguel Calderon, whose freaky paintings appear in the film, with stills (4:32); gallery of Richie Tenenbaum's illustrations by Wes Anderson's brother Eric; gallery of publications created for the film, from Etheline Tenenbaum's Family of Geniuses to Raleigh St. Clair's The Peculiar Neurodegenerative Inhabitants of the Kazawa Atoll. Plus: See Anjelica Huston's hair catch on fire! (:40) See Bill Murray predict the fate of Dalmatian mice! (:19) See Kumar Pallana spin seven plates at once! (:29)

With the Filmmaker (27:02) — An IFC featurette directed by Albert Maysles following Anderson through the production.

The Peter Bradley Show (14:20) — Actor Larry Pine, recreating his parody of Charlie Rose from the film, ineptly interviews peripheral cast members and Anderson/Wilson family friends Stephen Dignan, Sanjay Mathew, Kumar Pallana, Dipak Pallana, Brian Tenenbaum and not Andrew Wilson. Not as amusing as it is long.

Cut Scenes (1:47) — Only two excised scenes, one featuring Olivia Williams as Eli Cash's wife, and the other a short-lived attempt at romance between Etheline and Henry.

Trailers (4:23) — Two marginally different promos.

Interviews (26:53) — Individual recollections from Gene Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Ben Stiller and Anjelica Huston.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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