A ROYAL Pain
One of my favorite movie lines comes from The Lion in Winter, a wonderful film of the Ď60s starring Katharine Hepburn. "ĎAll families have their ups and downs," her character, the authoritative Elinor of Aquitaine, observes. Although referring to those dysfunctional royals of the Middle Ages, her comments are just as appropriate for modern families like The Royal Tenenbaums. These Tenenbaums --- played by Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Luke Wilson --- experience a few ups, but their downs are more miserable than any group of relatives Iíve seen on screen since Home for the Holidays.
With a high-powered cast like the one assembled for this dark comedy, filmmaker Wes Anderson (Rushmore) could have hit a home run. He certainly started with a fascinating concept --- siblings who are geniuses failing to achieve their potential. And opening scenes of the youngsters showing off various accomplishments are amusing. One child, a financial wiz, breeds spotted Dalmatian mice. Another defeats all comers at tennis. The third writes intellectual plays. Then, like the movie itself, each character becomes a disappointment to me. Comical aspects of their dysfunction receive little attention, and everyone appears more pathetic than humorous.
Stiller (Zoolander) portrays the grown-up business prodigy. As an adult, he runs around in a gym suit all day and obsesses over the safety of his two pre-teen sons. Wilson (Legally Blonde) no longer wins at tennis --- or anything else, for that matter. Heís too busy pining over his adopted sister. A zombie-like Paltrow (Bounce), the budding dramatist, locks herself in the bathroom for hours at a time, ignoring her worried husband (Bill Murray from Osmosis Jones).
The Royal Tenenbaums places most of the blame for this situation on Royal (Hackman), an absentee dad. After seeing so many films depicting the mother as the cause of their childrenís problems, I admit to appreciating this twist. Here, Etheline Tenenbaum (Huston, looking less matronly than in The Golden Bowl ) comes across as the one Tenenbaum exhibiting some semblance of normalcy. Proving her concern for the family, she allows her errant husband and disturbed children to move back into her home, much to the dismay of new boyfriend (Danny Glover from the Lethal Weapon flicks). What Etheline doesnít know, however, is that Royal, facing financial disaster, has tricked all of them by pretending heís dying of cancer.
Why wasnít any of this funny to me? Iím surprised I didnít laugh once at Andersonís co-screenwriter Owen Wilson (Zoolander) who portrays a neighbor trying to keep up with the Tenenbaums. I usually chuckle just looking at him! I think itís because the whole tone of the film seems more like tragedy than comedy.
Watching a man trying to regain the affection of children he little understood, then abandoned, made me squirm. And I couldnít empathize with Royal. Heís a selfish jerk who canít even remember his adopted daughterís middle name. Oscar-winner Hackman (Unforgiven, The French Connection) is almost as annoying in this role as he was in Heartbreakers. Please donít yell at me, Hackman fans. Iíve admired many of his outstanding performances --- the latest in Behind Enemy Lines. And, to be fair, his performance is winning rave reviews. The American Film Institute named Hackman the best featured actor of 2001 for his work as Royal Tenenbaum.
If a film is billed as a comedy/drama, I expect to smile more than a few times while watching it. That didnít happen for me during The Royal Tenenbaums. No wonder I feel cheated.
(Released by Touchstone Pictures and rated "R" for some language, sexuality/nudity and drug content.)