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Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2002

Much ado about nothing

The Royal Tenenbaums

Rating: * * *
Director: Wes Anderson
Running time: 110 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

The popular TV series "Seinfeld" used to boast of being "a show about nothing." Bringing that approach to the big screen is up-and-coming U.S. indie director Wes Anderson with his film "The Royal Tenenbaums," which is more a collection of outrageously uncool '70s fashion and twee soft-pop than "about" anything per se.

News photo
The extended clan of "The Royal Tenenbaums" TOUCHSTONE PICTURES © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Just take a look at the promo posters: You've got Ben Stiller and a pair of tykes in matching vintage all-red Adidas tracksuits, Gwyneth Paltrow going for a Goth preppy look with a striped Lacoste one-piece and way too much eyeliner, and Owen Wilson trying out a "suburban cowboy" look, pairing a 10-gallon hat and fringe jacket with gray slacks and loafers. Luke Wilson mixes a beige suit with a worn tennis headband, and Angelica Huston looks not-so-pretty in pink. It gets worse with the interior design. Zebra wallpaper, anyone?

Can a film survive on kitsch alone? Well, Anderson tries his damnedest to find out, in a flick where the nostalgic bric-a-brac that lines the shelves of every scene seems to have received a great deal more consideration than the film's characters. It's as if things could tell us more about them than the actors could.

"The Royal Tenenbaums" is set in modern-day New York City, but it's hard to tell, because everything looks like the '70s never ended. Which is kind of the point: Anderson is exploring a family for whom time stopped, focusing on a trio of child geniuses who decline into adult loserdom after daddy leaves home. (And when is a family in a U.S. indie flick not dysfunctional?)

Patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman, looking like an older, wealthier version of his character in "Scarecrow") and his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), raise a brood of child prodigies who rise to fame when Etheline publishes a none-too-modest book, "Family of Geniuses." In a bravura opening sequence, set to the strains of an instrumental version of "Hey Jude" by Elliott Smith, Anderson plunges us into the Tenenbaum myth, a cossetted childhood of indulgence and success. This is laid out in a magnificent wave of carefully composed shots, a series of brief and silly scenes in which we meet the kids -- aspiring playwright Margot, tennis pro Richie and junior entrepeneur Chas, who's breeding "Dalmatian mice" in his bedroom-cum-office.

Everything breaks when Royal tells the kids he's leaving; in typical Anderson style, it's a bizarre shot, with Royal at one end of a long conference table, formally addressing his kids.

Cut ahead in time until, as the narrator tells us, "all memory of the Tenenbaum's brilliance was erased by two decades of failure and disaster." Richie (Luke Wilson) flips out midgame while on the U.S. Open tour, and retreats into solitude, living for years at sea on a yacht; Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is married to a curmudgeonly neurologist (Bill Murray) and regretting it, sinking into lassitude; Chas (Ben Stiller) has lost his wife in a plane crash and has become a paranoid control-freak, constantly running his twin sons through emergency escape drills.

Just as the Tenenbaum kids all hit their limit and move back home to Etheline's brownstone, old Royal -- booted out of his hotel for not paying his bills -- decides to freeload off her as well. Faking a case of terminal cancer, he cunningly reinserts himself into their lives.

Subplots abound: Chas resents Royal for his easygoing ways; Etheline is engaged to her accountant, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover); Richie secretly pines for his (adopted) sister Margot, as does his best friend from childhood, Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), a wannabe cowboy author with a taste for mescaline and bad art (stuff like ghouls on motorbikes).

Anderson knows two modes: whimsy and melancholy. He does the second better by far. Bill Murray cuts a sad figure indeed when he pathetically blurts out to Gwyneth, "You don't love me anymore." As the bittersweet "Charlie Brown Christmas" music rolls on the soundtrack, Gwyneth replies "I do . . . kind of," with a pause that could break any guy's heart.

As it was in "Rushmore," the humor of Anderson and co-screenwriter Wilson is deader than deadpan, the "wry grin" sort of joke that may just as easily fly by. Hackman, playing a likable scoundrel, gets all the best lines. Talking to Chas' kids, he tries to be grandfatherly, but blows it all the same: "I'm sorry about your loss. Your mother was a very attractive woman."

Anderson doesn't have much of an ear for jokes, but he does have a talent for visual gags. Like Jean-Pierre Jeunet with "Amelie," he prefers to break into the narrative with out-of-the-blue jump-cuts that usually lead to a surprise laugh. The best come when a detective investigates the secretive Margot's past, and we cut to tableaux shots of her sordid misadventures, which include a perfectly rendered old reggae album cover that captures her with a Rastafarian lover.

Actually the film is hermetic in how it forms all these artifacts of an imaginary past. When Chas confronts Royal in a private conversation in a little-used closet, our eyes turn to the rows upon rows of old, faded boardgames that surround them. But this cuts both way: While there are directors for whom ambience is the overwhelming concern of their films -- such as Wong Kar-wai or Tran Anh Hung -- they're also very astute observers of character.

Anderson's Tenenbaums, however, are far less memorable than their outfits. They seem less like fully realized people than a scrapbook of quirks and idiosyncracies. Richie is defined more by his Bjorn Borg look and pet falcon than by anything he says or does. Ditto for Margot and her eyeliner. The artifice and hyperreality is so great, and the performances so low-key, it's hard to feel anything for this family. Unlike "Amelie," we never warm to the leads.

Anderson is a bold and inventive stylist, with a capital-"p" Pop sensibility that's all his own. But as with so much of U.S. indie cinema these days (or post-indie, as it were), the clever irony and distancing keeps you from actually engaging with this world. Compare the Tenenbaums to the Vermas in "Monsoon Wedding," and the difference becomes painfully clear: Mira Nair's film echoes with reality and feeling, Anderson's is an arty sitcom. It's decent light entertainment, yes, but hardly the stuff of genius.

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