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Look Homeward, Angel

The Royal Tenenbaums may not be the movie of the year, but it is a seasonal gift to us all. Sweet and funny, doggedly oddball if bordering precious, Wes Anderson's third feature presents itself as the adaptation of a non-existent book, checked out of an anachronistic municipal library, and set in an enchanted Manhattan. It's the story of an Upper East Side Salingeresque family living in the memory of their own personal FAO Schwarz.

The movie's particular fantasy is that you can go home again, but not as you would wish. Anderson multiplies Max, the precocious hero of his 1998 Rushmore, by three, and extrapolates the boy's future unhappiness; The Royal Tenenbaums concerns the temporary reconstitution of its eponymous family after "two decades of failure, betrayal, and disaster." The three children of the long-separated Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), are natural aristocrats. All were prodigies—the financial whiz Chas, the playwright Margot, and the tennis champ Richie. Like exiled royalty, they are disoriented, yearning for a lost grandeur that never quite existed. (The title playfully echoes The Magnificent Ambersons.)

Anderson, who wrote the movie in collaboration with the irresistibly comic actor Owen Wilson, is most economical in establishing the Tenenbaum family myth and its aftermath. Still angry at his absent father, Chas (Ben Stiller) becomes even more furious upon losing his wife. An adopted child with an acute sense of rejection, sullen Margot (kohl-eyed Gwyneth Paltrow) is no longer able to write or indeed leave the house. Meanwhile, the youngest child, goofball Richie (Luke Wilson), sails around the world, having suffered a mid-championship on-court meltdown upon learning of Margot's marriage to another depressed character, Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray, sporting a Commander Whitehead beard).

This mortal Royal: Hackman with Grant Rosenmeyer (left) and Jonah Meyerson
photo: James Hamilton
This mortal Royal: Hackman with Grant Rosenmeyer (left) and Jonah Meyerson

Details

The Royal Tenenbaums
Directed by Wes Anderson
Written by Anderson & Owen Wilson
Buena Vista
Opens December 14

Kandahar
Written and directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Avatar
Lincoln Plaza
Opens December 14

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As this is a family drama, the Tenenbaums are reunited in part because the bemused, engagingly remote Etheline has decided to marry her mild-mannered accountant, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). The children return in the order of their birth. Chas is the first, accompanied by his two motherless boys—all three in matching red jogging suits. Margot gets wind of the new arrangement and is properly outraged, complaining to her mother, "Why are they allowed to do that?" After she leaves her husband (or rather the bathroom where she hides out for most of the day), Richie heads home too. Sibling rivalry, a prime force in the Tenenbaum universe, is compounded by the presence of Richie's friend, the hilariously smug novelist Eli Cash (Owen Wilson).

To complete the regression and foil his wife's marriage plans, Royal also contrives to move back home. Once a prominent litigator, this lank-haired scamp—discordantly resplendent in pink shirts and ill-matched double-breasted suits—has been evicted from his pricey hotel. Part of Hackman's rancid charm is that he makes no bid for audience sympathy—his shameless manipulations are directed totally at the Tenenbaums. Royal misinforms Etheline that he's dying of cancer with six weeks to live, and it works. Even so, his kids are singularly unimpressed, with the glowering Chas taking a particularly hard line.

Anderson's admiration for Preston Sturges and Jean Renoir is evident in his ambitious orchestration of the Tenenbaum ensemble. But the movie also has the homey, familiar quality of the Sunday funnies. Richie is always in sweatband and shades, just as Margot rarely appears without her fur coat and Henry is never without his bow tie—all the Tenenbaums, as well as their wannabe Eli, have comic-strip trademarks and are usually operating under the spell of an idée fixe. Etheline, who keeps a pencil handy in her hair, is clearly the adult (and Huston's performance appears the most nuanced) because she is the lone character who ever seems focused on more than one emotion.

The Royal Tenenbaums aspires toward an elusive moodiness. As in his previous films, Anderson makes extremely precise use of pop music. His main period is the late '60s—although the Ramones are drafted to score the comic montage of Margot's outré love life. The entire movie might have been conceived to provide a frame for Nico's behind-the-beat rendition of "These Days." The most romantic scene is set to, and bolstered by, consecutive selections from the Rolling Stones' Between the Buttons—fetishistically, the LP is even shown playing on a kid's plastic turntable in the bright yellow pup tent, decorated with decals and filled with toys, that Richie has pitched in the attic.

Throughout, the Tenenbaum house is shown as a series of cozy dens—each consecrated to a particular individual. More droll than uproarious, albeit stuffed with off-speed gags and surprising one-liners throughout, the humor is similarly predicated on character. Anderson has an abracadabra sense of timing—his nerdy magic realism is enlivened by shock non sequiturs. He loves to populate the frame with unexpected types; he's a humanist, although not everyone will be equally amused by the deadpan duplicity of Royal's diminutive South Asian sidekick, Pagoda (Kumar Pallana).

The romantic pathos of Rushmore is lacking here, and Anderson overcompensates with a whimsical eccentricity that some may find arch. But beneath the layers of cleverness is a vein of melancholy—often signalled by the sound of wistful folk-rock in a world of overbright colors—as the Tenenbaums try to turn back the hands of time. The main romance is filial: the mutual desire for acceptance and forgiveness between parent and child. There's nothing sadder than Royal's belated attempt to treat Margot to an ice cream sundae in what looks like a shabby version of Rumpelmayer's—unless it's the final reconciliation between Royal and Chas. The most tender running gag is the imaginary, lost Manhattan Anderson has cobbled out of locations from the Lower East Side to Inwood (with forays into at least two other boroughs and several local islands).

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