Wes Anderson somewhat overreaches his considerable talents in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” an ambitious serio-comedy about an errant father’s attempt to reconcile with his eccentric family before it’s too late. As richly conceived as the novel it pretends to be and full of distinctive characters and scenes, this piquant tale of a clan of underachieving New York geniuses underachieves in its own way by trapping an expansive, probing story in a brittle, highly artificial style that constricts character and emotional development. Like another grandly conceived third film by another fine young director named Anderson, “Magnolia,” “Tenenbaums” will provoke the full range of critical response, from masterpiece to the emperor’s new clothes. Expect eager curiosity among upscale and serious auds in Christmas release following its world preem tonight at the New York Film Festival and possible general crossover based on its accessible dramatic and humorous content.
Anderson’s first two features, the Texas-lensed “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore,” also co-written with Owen Wilson, were justly praised for their originality and distinctively sly comic voice, but never broke out beyond cult status. Everything about the new pic announces more lofty aims — the larger canvas, the distinguished cast, the family-saga format and literary ambitions that can most immediately be traced to J.D. Salinger.
In the style of old studio adaptations that began with the turning of the first pages of a book, so does “Tenenbaums” begin with the positioning of the narrative as a written account of a seriously fractured family. Narrator Alec Baldwin is busy right off the bat supplying reams of exposition about the clan, which, as its patriarch points out, is “one-quarter Hebrew and three-quarters mick Catholic” but 100% American eccentric.
Royal (Gene Hackman) is a formerly successful litigator who, since abandoning the family years before, was disbarred and imprisoned before becoming a hotel-dwelling layabout. Older son Chas (Ben Stiller), a financial genius from an early age, is now a widower with two young sons; it was he who engineered his father’s ruin. Adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) was a precocious playwright who hasn’t written anything worthwhile since school days and leads a dubiously promiscuous life even while married to protective child therapist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray).
Younger son Richie (Luke Wilson), a former tennis prodigy, wanders the high seas in apparent flight from professional disenchantment and the impossible love he has always felt for Margot, who at one point ran off with his best friend, successful novelist Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). Then there’s the Tenenbaum mom, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), who raised the kids after Royal left, hasn’t had sex in 18 years but now is considering the marriage proposal of her reserved colleague and bridge partner Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), even though she’s not officially divorced.
A sour lot to begin with, the Tenenbaum kids move back into the family abode for their own reasons, but become even more hostile when Dad shows up wanting to make amends. His initial claim that he has but six weeks to live — designed to win back Etheline — is immediately exposed as a lie, driving his estranged wife to new heights of fury, and the sincerity with which he asserts his longing to reconnect with his children, to meet his grandchildren and to feel something resembling love from them is met with unyielding resistance.
Exiled once again, Royal takes up residence at the Y and takes a job at his hotel as a lowly elevator operator in order to pay his heavily accumulated dues.
Most interesting story strand belongs to Margot and Richie. On the surface, Margot is the one who seems the closest to being suicidal; unrelievedly listless and still insecure due to her adopted status, she is the one who appears to have been most injured emotionally by Royal’s abandonment.
But in fact it’s the more emotionally opaque Richie who is teetering nearest to the abyss. As fixated on Margot as he is, Richie still considers the mere idea of their love illicit, despite the fact that they are not technically brother and sister; even when he shares his pain with Royal and, surprisingly, receives the green light to pursue his desires, he can’t get over the barrier that both is and isn’t there.
By the final stretch, the ache these characters feel — about their unfulfilled potential and their unrealized relationships with those closest to them — should be palpable, not to mention deeply moving. It’s a story of a desperate attempt to repair missed connections, one inevitably doomed to failure but not without dividends.
But the arch, precise, calculating style that so well served the prankish aims of “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore” proves unwelcomely restrictive to the more demanding needs of this picture; Anderson’s crisp narrative approach and tidy visuals haven’t matured to accommodate a more fulsome storyline and diverse set of characters.
If one looks closely at the text of the would-be “Tenenbaums” novel that periodically flashes on screen, the sentences all appear to be simple declarative ones, without subtext, shadings or emotional evocation. So it is with Anderson’s cinematic style in the service of a tremendously ripe subject.
One can scarcely fault this wonderful group of gifted actors. Bringing a goofy, over-the-hill swinger’s edge to Royal’s earnestness of intent, Hackman is wonderful as far as the script’s lack of psychological dimension allows him to go; his boisterous presence and refusal to be defeated give the pic extra energy. Huston bestows Etheline with nicely paradoxical opposing elements of caution and a willingness to still be surprised by life, and cast against type, Glover must certainly be playing the most timorous, recessive man he’s ever portrayed onscreen.
Stiller is called upon to express little beyond intolerant stoniness, and co-writer Wilson’s self-consciously humorous swagger is seen to more comic effect currently in “Zoolander.” But his brother Luke takes advantage of his best screen opportunity to effectively explore a truly haunted figure, and Paltrow discovers a new register for her talents in a strong turn as a woman who has everything — looks, talent and money, anyway — except a properly functioning heart.
Anderson stalwart Kumar Pallana amusingly appears as the longtime family majordomo who follows Royal into exile, while Murray is underutilized compared to his brilliant turn in “Rushmore.”
A valentine to a very particular notion of New York, pic is technically immaculate and sports especially resourceful production design by David Wasco and costumes by Karen Patch. Film is festooned with significant pop tunes, particularly by the Beatles and Rolling Stones, which, Anderson stressed at the New York Fest press conference, had not yet been cleared as of the premiere.