- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 22, 2001

Several years ago, I heard a movie star summarize one of his flops as, "It went the way of the terminally hip movie." Wes Anderson and
Owen Wilson, principally responsible for the tongue-in-cheek fiasco "The Royal Tenenbaums," may want to resort to that nugget of wisdom when discussing their new movie in years to come.
"Tenenbaums" tells the misguided tale of a New York family of overprivileged aesthetes, prodigies and neurotics, a story apparently influenced by writer J.D. Salinger's Glass family.
Mr. Anderson, who writes and directs, and Mr. Wilson, who writes and performs, made a shaky but promising career start with the low-budget comedy "Bottle Rocket," released five years ago. A better showcase for the actor than the director, it started Mr. Wilson off as an eccentric comic. He's now enough of a favorite to co-star with Jackie Chan in "Shanghai Noon" and Gene Hackman in "Behind Enemy Lines."
Mr. Anderson's second feature was the overrated "Rushmore" in 1998. Set at a prep school, it failed to sustain either farcical set pieces or character humor while observing a fondly contrived yet insufferable update of Holden Caulfield, Mr. Salinger's immortal brat in "The Catcher in the Rye." The Salinger influence also backfires in "Tenenbaums."
Mr. Hackman plays the patriarch of the Tenenbaum clan, a wastrel named Royal, kind of a Daddy Mame. The matriarch is Anjelica Huston as dependable but rather detached Etheline, celibate since the break-up of her marriage but squired by family accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), whose outsider status makes him easily the most decent and appealing character in the film.
Royal, who is destitute, wants to worm his way back into the good graces of the clan after leaving it 20 years ago. The ensuing domestic rumpus, a preamble to cliched and unmerited reconciliations, places a heavy emphasis on the wackily static and deadpan. By my count, every scene in the movie falls as flat as live-action enactment permits. Mr. Anderson prefers to have his cast confront the camera straight-on and often immobilized, rather like actors posed in a humorous magazine spread.
Connoisseurs of this approach regard it as an ironic marvel, but Mr. Anderson has now directed three movies in succession that petrified while going out of their way to seem clever and amusing. His affectations need a drastic, common-sense overhaul. They're strictly for the cultists.
The filmmakers muddle their Salinger with tone-deaf echoes from the Philip Barry plays "Holiday" and "The Philadelphia Story" and the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman plays "You Can't Take It With You" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner."
The younger Tenenbaum generation consists of neurotic sons Charles and Richie, played by Ben Stiller and Luke Wilson (Owen Wilson's older brother and an easygoing asset to such movies as "Home Fries" and "Blue Streak"), and a semicatatonic adopted daughter named Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow). Mr. Stiller is pretty much lost in the shuffle. Luke Wilson's character, once a tennis prodigy, has been carrying a vaguely incestuous torch for Margot for years.
Married to a stuffy academic named Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray, with a Papa Hemingway beard), Margot has a grandiose nymphomaniacal resume that would seem to be scant disincentive for a fling with Richie. Incredibly, she never seems to coordinate inclinations with her suffering stepbrother. Owen Wilson, cast as a hedonistic family friend named Eli Cash, putatively a best-selling author, has better luck, if consorting with Margot can be construed as a conquest to cherish.
The movie's only selling point is Margot's sad-sack tartiness. It justifies some peekaboo nudity from Miss Paltrow. Needless to say, Margot had a lesbian phase, and Mr. Anderson feels duty bound to document it, if only as a passing tease.
Maybe it would help if Mr. Anderson set aside his camera and spent a few years directing revivals of sophisticated American theatrical comedies such as "The Philadelphia Story" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner." This might give him a better idea of how such material needs to look and sound and unfold in order to remain crisp, entertaining and perhaps affecting.

1/2 *
TITLE: "The Royal Tenenbaums"
RATING: R (Occasional profanity, sexual candor and comic vulgarity; fleeting nudity)
CREDITS: Directed by Wes Anderson; screenplay by Mr. Anderson and Owen Wilson; cinematography by Robert Yeoman; production design by David Wasco; costume design by Karen Patch; music by Mark Mothersbaugh, with musical supervision by Randall Poster
RUNNING TIME: Two hours
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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