Tenenbaums is a treat
Veteran actor Gene Hackman delivers in a delightful mock-absurdist comedy
Gene Hackman has had a heckuva year, and that’s just one of the interesting things about Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, a much-hyped film that is flimsier than all that publicity might make you think but much more rewarding than is usually the case with over-marketed films.
Hackman plays the errant paterfamilias of the title characters, and the title itself is a key indication of the potent mix of irony and humor at work in the new movie from the creator of Rushmore. Hackman is Royal Tenenbaum in this case, but to refer to this comically dysfunctional family as “the Royal Tenenbaums” is to invoke, and to mock, the patriarchal presumptions of an earlier era.
The earlier era in question might be described as “pre-1950 America,” but the setting of the film is in the present and in the part of the 1960s that extended well into the 1970s in general and marked the formative years of the Tenenbaums’ “exceptional” children in particular. Anderson and company reel off a hilariously devastating caricature of privileged Americans who also presume themselves to be “liberated,” circa 1975. But the movie as a whole is less concerned with skewering the delusions of another era than it is with giving us a darkly humorous comedy of redemption.
Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson, with Owen Wilson as a virtually adopted brother from across the street, play the Tenenbaum children—all precociously successful and warped by premature accomplishment and benign neglect. But it is Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum, a good-natured scoundrel trying to reconnect with his semi-discarded family, who makes the film come alive as both comedy and drama.
Royal himself is a sort of post-New Age version of W. C. Fields—a wry, self-aware rascal who sees the error of his ways but also knows that there’s too much joy in that rascality for him to ever completely mend those ways. It’s a role that combines the flawed swagger and self-assurance of the characters Hackman played in Heist and Behind Enemy Lines with the comic grotesqueness of his role in Heartbreakers.
Anderson’s direction of all this is playfully brilliant, what with the Pop Art color schemes, Godardian framing and deadpan staging. But his mock-absurdist screenplay is even better—it’s a family chronicle, an 800-page novel, compressed into the form of a deceptively whimsical anecdote. There are laughs in the foreground, but plenty more sneak up on us from the subtly arranged backgrounds, and the light-hearted tone brings a lively range of darker themes—mortality, failure, self-deception, deflected desire—into relief.
Stiller, Paltrow, and the two Wilsons all do good work as prodigies whose vital energies are inseparable from their variously damaged psyches. And Anderson gets outstanding performances from the older supporting players as well—Anjelica Huston (as Mrs. Tenenbaum), Bill Murray, Seymour Cassel and an unusually comical Danny Glover.