What happens when child prodigies grow up? Or forget to? That's one of the many subjects covered in The Royal Tenenbaums, which stews in the juices of failed promise. Directed by Wes Anderson, this funny-sad comedy about a family of precocious losers won't be everybody's cup of tea, but those who are willing to stretch their tastes a little may find themselves succumbing to its dark, fruity flavor. I certainly did, and not just because my own family has its own share of over-underachievers. After Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, Anderson has become a master at layering comedy and tragedy into movies that make us want to laugh and cry, smile and smirk, at the same time. He puts the 'fun' back in 'dysfunctional,' the 'dead' back in 'deadpan.' And he does it while remaining remarkably light on his feet. The Royal Tenenbaums has both a slump in its shoulders and a spring in its step.
And a chip on its shoulder. The three Tenenbaum children, who were raised in a massive Upper East Side brownstone, were once budding geniuses. Chas (Ben Stiller) was the entrepreneur: In sixth grade, he bred Dalmatian mice and sold them to a pet store in Little Tokyo. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), like Max Fischer in Rushmore, was an award-winning playwright. And Richie (Luke Wilson) was a tennis phenom. Then something happened. When the movie opens, Chas is a safety-first father of two who puts his sons, Ari and Uzi, through countless fire drills. Margot, who hasn't written a word in years, is holed up in her bathtub, using her toes to perform various tasks. And Luke, who committed 72 unforced errors in a championship match a couple of years back, has headed out to sea, riding an ocean liner from pole to pole. What could have caused these buds to wither rather than blossom?
Enter Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), the family patriarch. A lawyer who had an ambulance chaser's approach to raising children, Royal didn't exactly give his whiz kids the nurturing they needed. Neither did their mother, the doting yet dotty Etheline (Anjelica Huston). Long separated but still not divorced, Royal and Etheline are too unglued themselves to hold their family together. But, like some bizarre misalignment of the planets, all the Tenenbaums are about to return to the nest, Royal under the pretense that he's dying of cancer, the children under the pretense that...well, where else would they go? Who else would take them? Like the Sycamore clan in You Can't Take It With You, the Tenenbaums are a world unto themselves ' eccentric bordering on crazy. And like J.D. Salinger's Glass family, they're a disenchanted world unto themselves ' neurotic bordering on suicidal.
The Salinger connection seems almost too strong: the Upper East Side address, the tragicomic atmosphere, the kids acting like adults and the adults acting like kids. Anderson even presents the movie as if it were the cinematic version of a cherished novel, dividing the story into chapters and showing us the book being stamped by a library clerk in the opening moments. But where Salinger turned the Glass family into some kind of exclusive club for the especially gifted, Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson allow the Tenenbaum family to fray and unravel. They've never been much of family per se, but in their uniquely weird way they're working on it. The Tenenbaums are also cruder than the Glasses. Royal, for instance, has a way of saying whatever pops into his head, and because his head is rather porous, that can mean just about anything. Whatever the reasons, the Tenenbaums seem more accessible to us. We don't have to view them through a Glass case.
Nor do we have to feel either superior or inferior to them, thanks in part to some beautifully pitched performances. Hackman gives Royal just the right amount of love and understanding: a smidgen. And Huston's Etheline sails serenely through the movie, oblivious to her own obliviousness. But it's the children ' those shell-shocked veterans of their upbringing ' who give the movie its antic-melancholy tone, especially Paltrow's Margot, who has the downturned mouth of a Peanuts character. Though married to a neurologist (Bill Murray doing an Oliver Sacks number), Margot is secretly in love with her brother Richie. And Richie's secretly in love with her. Luckily, she was adopted, a fact that Royal has never neglected to point out to strangers. Out of such awkward moments are unhappy families ' and movies about unhappy families ' made. But this one carries its awkwardness with uncommon grace.