[Screen It]

(2001) (Gene Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow) (R)

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Comedy: After being absent for many years, a scoundrel tries to prevent his ex-wife from remarrying by insinuating himself back into his adult children's dysfunctional lives.
Decades ago, the Tenenbaum kids -- Chas (BEN STILLER), Richie (LUKE WILSON) and their adopted sister Margot (GWYNETH PALTROW) - were something to behold. Chas was a natural born businessman who raised and sold Dalmatian mice, Richie was a championship level tennis player, and Margot an award-winning playwright.

Yet, when their neglectful and callous father, Royal Tenenbaum (GENE HACKMAN), left their mother, Etheline (ANGELICA HUSTON), the kids never quite recovered and became poster children of dysfunctional living. Now 22 years later, things aren't much better, although the family is once again coming together.

When Royal learns that he's being kicked out of the hotel where he's lived ever since then and hears from the family's helper, Pagoda (KUMAR PALLANA), that Etheline is seriously involved with her friend and business manager, Henry Sherman (DANNY GLOVER), the scoundrel decides to insinuate himself back into the family by announcing that he's dying from a terminal disease.

Chas, whose wife died within the past year in a plane accident, has moved his two kids, Ari (GRANT ROSENMEYER) and Uzi (JONAH MEYERSON), into his mom's place after becoming increasingly paranoid about their safety. The perpetually depressed Margot has moved back home after an unhappy marriage to writer and neurologist Raleigh St. Claire (BILL MURRAY), while Richie has returned after traveling the seas lamenting his secret love for Margot. Then there's their childhood friend and current professor and novelist, Eli Cash (OWEN WILSON), who's also maladjusted, what with his drug problem.

As Royal tries to prevent Etheline from marrying Henry, he enlists the aid of his friend, Dusty (SEYMOUR CASSEL), to help him continue his illness ruse so that he can get back into his kids' good graces and thus use them in his plan.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Just in time for the holiday season comes this delightfully wacky tale of a dysfunctional family of Christmas trees living in a 19th century Prussian castle. Each featuring their own eccentric decorations, the trees try to…What? I'm starting my review for "The Royal Tannenbaums," so if you don't mind… What's that? Oh. Excuse me.

Just in time for the holiday season comes "The Royal Tenenbaums," a delightfully wacky tale of a dysfunctional family living in a 21st century city. Each featuring their own eccentricities and problems dangling from them like so many fragile Christmas tree ornaments, the film arrives from the mind and hands of writer/director Wes Anderson who, with the one of the film's co-stars, Owen Wilson, previously fashioned the equally quirky but highly enjoyable films, "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore."

Like those films and keeping with the Christmas tree analogy, the beauty of this one is in the individual details. While on the surface it might not sound like anything special, the collective effort of all of the clever, funny and imaginative particulars is what makes the film rather entertaining. That qualitative assessment aside, however, one shouldn't be mislead into thinking that it's perfect or without its flaws.

Told in storybook fashion with the beginning of each "chapter" read to us by occasional narrator Alec Baldwin ("Pearl Harbor," "State and Main"), and featuring a fun if eclectic soundtrack including what clearly sounded like the old Peanuts TV show theme, the film unfolds not such much with a strong plot to carry or propel it, but rather with individual moments served as comical or dramatic offerings designed to get the viewer laughing, thinking or both.

Much like the recent "Amelie," the film introduces its set of quirky characters in an imaginative fashion, although the result isn't as funny or charmingly capricious as in that French import. Even so, those details are fun to behold and the filmmakers deliver a plethora of them in setting up the story.

Once drawn, the central plot - of what exists of it - then starts with the family's father figure - played to roguish perfection by Gene Hackman ("Behind Enemy Lines," "Heist") in one of his more memorable performances in a long and memorable career - trying to insinuate himself back into his adults kids' lives. The reasons for that are twofold. For one, he's broke and has been kicked out of the hotel where he's been living for years. Then there's the fact that he also wants to prevent his ex-wife - nicely played by Angelica Huston ("The Golden Bowl," "Prizzi's Honor") - from remarrying.

The humor, of course, thus stems from the kids' reaction to his return -- based on the emotional damage he caused to them in the film's introductory moments when they were most impressionable - as well as his dismissive responses to all of that. From that point on, the various characters all try to sort out their numerous emotional and familial problems, resulting in some amusing and occasionally hilarious moments.

The film's big fault, however, beyond the generally languid underlying plot, is that one is likely to feel that the cast and crew are trying a bit too hard to create and/or exude the quirkiness that's made Anderson's other films so popular with critics and film fans alike.

Rather than allowing that quality to flow forth in a natural sense from the story and its characters - as occurred in "Rushmore" - one gets the sense here that the quirky material came first and everything else was built around it. The result is something of an artificial and occasionally forced aura that looms above the proceedings, drawing undue attention to itself and thus distracting the viewer.

When done right, little is better or more enjoyable to behold than quirky characters and storytelling. Yet, when it feels too much like that was the goal rather than the byproduct or unexpected result of engaging characters and plots, the effect is somewhat diminished. It's certainly not a horrible flaw, and much of the film and its characters are still fun and entertaining, but it just means that it's not quite as good or enjoyable as it might have been.

Nevertheless, the terrific cast and some of their performances in particular offset much of that. Beyond Huston and Hackman - the latter of whom could possibly garner some award nominations for his fabulous performance - there's Ben Stiller ("Zoolander," "Meet the Parents"), Gwyneth Paltrow ("Shallow Hall," "Shakespeare in Love") and Luke Wilson ("Legally Blonde," "My Dog Skip") playing their adult children, each with their particular emotional hang-ups.

Paltrow gets the most fun role playing the chronically depressed playwright, replete with dark, raccoon-like makeup, ample consternation and nary a smile to be found. Stiller mostly does his normal neurotic/sarcastic bit he's perfected in other films, while Wilson is okay in a darker role, although a flashback to his breakdown on the tennis courts is rather funny.

Supporting performances are generally decent with Luke's brother Owen Wilson ("Behind Enemy Lines," "Meet the Parents") embodying an interesting drug addict, Danny Glover ("Beloved," the "Lethal Weapon" films) playing Etheline's suitor, and Seymour Cassel ("Rushmore," "Honeymoon in Vegas") and Kumar Pallana ("Rushmore," "Bottle Rocket") appearing as Royal's friends and coconspirators.

The one disappointment, however, and despite the goofy getup and look is with Bill Murray ("Osmosis Jones," "Groundhog Day") as Paltrow's researcher husband. Although there are some funny bits regarding his nerdy research subject, most of his performance is rather flat. That's something of a surprise considering Murray' talent and track record, including the terrific performance he delivered for Anderson in "Rushmore."

Amusing, imaginative, and yes, definitely quirky, "The Royal Tenenbaums" is entertaining to watch simply because it's so different from most of what Hollywood routinely offers. Yet, it's not great or brilliant, and isn't quite as enjoyable as the director's last effort, despite Hackman's fabulous performance. The film rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 16, 2001 / Posted December 21, 2001

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