The people in “The Royal Tenenbaums” are deadpan, matter-of-fact and not given to histrionics. They, like the movie — which presents itself with little camera movement and a lot of straight-on, non-angular shots — are quietly, unobtrusively insane. You’re familiar with characters who get the most laughs by tossing off lines under their breath? This entire movie feels like it was delivered that way. It soars to great comedic heights, but without even breaking a sweat.
Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum, a once-wealthy New Yorker who has been separated from his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) for 18 years. Their children were geniuses and have turned out screwed up in different ways. Chas (Ben Stiller) is freaked out over his wife’s death six months ago and is obsessed with business and strategy. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), the adopted daughter, is a secretive playwright, married to understanding psychologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray). And Richie (Luke Wilson) is a tennis pro who recently suffered an on-court meltdown, and who has an unhealthy devotion to his adopted sister. Richie’s childhood friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) is also attached to Margot, as is her husband.
In the present time, Royal announces he is dying of stomach cancer and wants to reconcile with his wife and children. He wants to develop a relationship with his grandchildren, Chas’ sons Ari (Grant Rosenmeyer) and Uzi (Jonah Meyerson). But mostly, he wants a place to live, and to stop Etheline from marrying her long-time accountant and friend Henry Sherman (Danny Glover).
Chas is most reluctant to let Royal back into his life, while Margot and Richie have varying degrees of mistrust. Raleigh, meanwhile, wants to find out whether Margot is cheating on him, Tenenbaum family assistant Pagoda (Kumar Pallana) has to figure out his loyalties, and there are Dalmatian-spotted mice running around the house. It has the makings of a mad-cap farce, but the zaniness here is calm and low-key, which in fact makes it funnier.
Director Wes Anderson and his co-writer Owen Wilson (the two also worked on “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore”) have fashioned a wonderful world. There is a skewed perception of reality, and it seems every character in the movie, including the minor ones, has written a book. It is not enough for the narrator (Alec Baldwin) to tell us that something happened long ago; we get to see it, too, even if only for two seconds. The movie always gives us something interesting to look at and something amusing to hear.
The acting is uniformly suited to the film; clearly, the entire cast was on the same page when Anderson explained the style he was going for. Most of the characters employ irony or sarcasm, but the film is not caustic or cynical. It is rather sweet, actually, beneath the layers of bemused goofiness.
A (; )