Film Highlight: The Royal Tenenbaums

Touchstone Pictures

This calculatedly overweening, vintage pop-dependent comedy about an eccentric family of New York geniuses—not unlike Orson Welles's legendarily compromised The Magnificent Ambersons—is largely about how you can't always get what you want. What precipitates loss of control here is the irresistible allure of the fickle, peripheral female: Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), the adopted, promiscuous, and depressed Tenenbaum daughter, hopelessly pursued by both her tennis-champ brother Richie (Luke Wilson) and his urban-cowboy pal (Owen Wilson); and Etheline (Anjelica Huston), the clan's archaeologist matriarch, who deeply disappoints her estranged husband Royal (Gene Hackman) by taking up with an African American accountant (Danny Glover) he refers to more than once as a "big ol' black buck." That's pretty queasy material for a comedy that's about white male privilege in more ways than one, and not inconsistent with director Wes Anderson's basic strategy in all his films: to test whether the most absurd flourishes of character, costume, and set design can combine to deny those few "universal" truths (at least for white guys) about friendship (Bottle Rocket), school (Rushmore), or family. That The Royal Tenenbaums has do with death as well helps to make it more resonant and melancholy than its predecessors—in keeping with an ambitious film that occasionally suffers from the disease of using songs as a convenient shortcut to creating a mood. Despite countless unique and amazing moments, the movie doesn't quite come together—which may not, in fact, go against the director's master plan.

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