The Royal Tenenbaums
"How eccentric can we be?" This seems to be the question motivating director Wes ("Rushmore") Anderson and writer/actor Owen Wilson. Eccentricity is the Hollywood disease du jour, compelling every geek who fancies that he had a mildly unusual childhood to exaggerate it into a wild game of idiosyncratic one-upmanship. The result involves unappealing characters one would be unlikely to find even in the deepest, darkest bowels of a psych ward.
In this buffet of freakishness, "The Royal Tenenbaums" is the prime rib. There are no normal people in the movie, which leaves the audience hard-pressed to identify with any anyone in the film. Note to Anderson and Wilson: A collage of cunning eccentricities does not a character make. Without anything substantial to hold it up, all that clever quirky frosting just collapses into an incomprehensible heap.
Though the trendy coping mechanism Prozac is never mentioned, it seems as though every single character in this movie is on it. The emotional levels of the film hover somewhere between muted and hibernated. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is a self-described "asshole" who's trying to reconnect with the family he ostracized. This proves no small challenge, since his patriarchy more closely resembled the relationship between a man and his neighbor's annoying dogs than that between a man and his family. Royal announces he's dying and his three miserable children, Chas (Ben Stiller), Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Richie (Luke Wilson), return for no apparent reason. Royal announces he wishes to make good with them before he dies -- go to the fair, throw the football around the park, that sort of thing. Frankly, I'm not a big believer in blood's value as a binding tie, and if others would just follow my lead, we'd have a lot fewer of these stupid dysfunctional family homages.
Virtually no exchange between Royal and his separated wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), between Margot and her husband (Bill Murray), between Etheline and her suitor (Danny Glover), or between Margot and her childhood friend (Owen Wilson) occurs above a whisper. I kept craning my neck to see if somebody was going to turn the sound up.
"The Royal Tenenbaums" puts the burden of connecting with the film squarely on the shoulders of the audience. Am I seriously supposed to care about the members of some rich, successful, genius family just because their home lives are miserable? There are many people in the world who are poor, unsuccessful and stupid, whose home lives are far more miserable than the Tenenbaums. They don't make movies about them, because nobody wants to pay eight-and-a-half dollars to be reminded that human reproduction is a curse, not a gift.
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