"The Royal Tenenbaums" (IMDb listing) is the kind of movie I want to like. Even though it's a Hollywood film with a Hollywood cast, it breaks with convention at every turn (or does it?) and offers up plenty of belly laughs. So why was I so disappointed with Wes Anderson's writerly follow-up to "Rushmore?" The reasons, it turns out, are legion.
Anderson's greatest gift is a keen eye for composition and color. The trouble is, he leans on this talent to a disproportionate degree (also a problem in "Rushmore"). To take an example at random, there's a scene in the film where Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), the adopted Tenenbaum, is seen walking across a bridge. Several beautiful old buildings are stationed in the background, and the railings of the bridge jump out at us with an almost phosphorescent green. The air looks chilly, but Margot appears comfy enough in her long fur coat. The camera cuts to Eli (Owen Wilson), a long time family friend, who strides toward Margot from an odd angle (the bridge seems to be shaped like a boomerang). When they meet, we expect a Great Movie Moment of some kind. The stage has been set, so to speak. And obviously a lot of work has gone into the shots leading up to their close-ups. But only a handful of words are exchanged, none of them particularly meaningful. "Tenenbaums" is filled with frustrating let downs of this nature.
We have, essentially, a story that takes on the formidable task of balancing screwball humor with poignant melodrama. That shouldn't be an excuse to forego strong characterization, but in "Tenenbaums" it seems to be. Ben Stiller is good at what he does, but let's be honest, his range as an actor is limited. We're supposed to believe that his character, Chas, was a child genius who blossoms into a financial wizard. But half the time all I could see on Stiller's face was one of Zoolander's vacant poses. He can play dumb like few others, but the role of child prodigy is slightly out of reach for the handsome comic.
On top of all this, the melodramatic portions of the film simply do not work. While some of the comic business truly is kind of funny, the attempts at sobriety are equally laughable. Gene Hackman wrings quite a bit out of the turnip that is Royal Tenenbaum, but claims that this is one of his best performances are utterly groundless. Anjelica Huston and Danny Glover also bring about some of the film's too scarce blips of life. Who would expect less? But is that the kind of mindset we're supposed to adopt whenever we deign to see a high profile Hollywood movie these days, even when it is a bit offbeat? Are we to console ourselves with the mantra, "Not bad for a mainstream Hollywood movie?"
I guess none of this would be so frustrating if "Tenenbaums" didn't have such great potential. Hell, another draft of the script might have made all the difference in the world. When it looks like Royal Tenenbaum has finally been called on his "I'm dying of cancer" ploy for attention, why not let him go? Now, that might have been poignant. But no, he comes back and won't stop until he's won over the hearts of everyone in the family. (Is it possible this is even more of a Hollywood film than it appears at first blush?) Is Richie Tenenbaum's suicide attempt necessary? Then why not let him succeed? Anything to shatter the spell of ennui cast over the film, and to shave 10 or 20 minutes off the running time.
In fairness, "The Royal Tenenbaums" is about the dissolution of a family, so it's not altogether inappropriate that the three children, though precocious as toddlers, should grow up to be little more than detestable misfits. This much of the story has some integrity to it. Where Anderson and Owen Wilson, who co-wrote the script, err is in casting the Tenenbaum family in such a vacuum of wealth and deplorability that we can't really relate to them. The job of Anderson and Wilson should have been to make us connect with this freakish family, but it never happens. And despite the hype about how wild and fresh this film is, I found it downright boring in places.
I'm surprised Owen Wilson didn't do more with his character, who probably had more promise than any of the others. He plays Eli Cash, an author who rewrites history in his "literary" fiction and has garnered something of a name for himself. My mouth instantly watered for what I hoped would be a major skewering of the literati. But even Eli Cash is a bit of a let down in the end (though the biggest laugh of the film for me comes when, during a television interview, he states that in one of his books he was going for a kind of "obsolete vocabulary;" there's an awkward pause as he struggles to finish the thought but in the end simply removes his mike and walks off the set of the interview). The film never quite figures out that you can't just call someone a writer and be done with it. You can't just label Ben Stiller a self made millionaire and then leave him to his wacky high jinks. The attributes of a character ought to carry through into every action and reaction of the actor.
There are people who should see "Tenenbaums," I suppose. It's received a lot of praise, after all. But I'm not exactly sure who those people are. Gene Hackman fans? Maybe. Fans of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson shouldn't be wholly disappointed, either. But ultimately, it's probably a film for Wes Anderson devotees. If he is filled with the promise that critics have been burdening him with since "Rushmore," he hasn't lived up to it yet, but maybe he's still a director to watch. And maybe, just maybe, he should consider handing the writing reins over to someone else entirely.
Filmfodder Grade: C