Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Perfect Family Saga Of Weird Timelessness: The Royal Tenenbaums Stands Up!

The Good: GREAT characters, Acting, Mood, Plot, Production design, Soundtrack
The Bad: Nothing comes to mind . . .
The Basics: An amazing piece of drama, the Tenenbaum family stands on the brink of destruction until Royal returns to try to gain redemption in The Royal Tenenbaums.

I've had a thing about Ben Stiller for a while; I watch every movie with him I can and I end up disappointed. Mystery Men, Zoolander (reviewed here!), and whatever else I've seen him in. I repress the memories. I write reviews, then repress it. The Royal Tenenbaums changes all of that. It figures: all he had to do was take a dramatic role and he works perfectly!

The Royal Tenenbaums is a character study of a strange upper class American family. The film revolves around Royal Tenenbaum, a disbarred lawyer who abandoned his children twenty-two years ago. His children were all geniuses: Chas who is an international finance master, Margot who is a brilliant playwright who has stopped producing, and Richie who was an amazing and famous tennis player. Richie's friend, Eli, is a novelist who is also a drug addict. Royal's wife, from whom he has been separated is Ethel, is a psychologist who is being courted by her accountant, Henry Sherman. When Chas, widowered for a year, has a nervous breakdown, the Tenenbaums come back together in Ethel's house. It is at this time that Royal claims he is dying and moves in as well hoping to reconcile with his family. In the course of the film, it quickly becomes clear that Royal is a liar, Eli is horribly drugged, Chas needs help and Richie is in love with Margot. And Margot's husband, Raleigh has no chance with her.

The Royal Tenenbaums is a family saga about one of the oddest upper class families ever conceived. Written by director Wes Anderson and actor Owen Wilson, this film is like a "Magnolia" Light, with less torment or less obvious torment. Presented as if it were a novel, The Royal Tenenbaums periodically presents chapter openings and then continues with the characters actually progressing from the way the scene is set up on the page.

The magic of this film is that it has the feel of a novel. It has the complexities, the lines that we want to come back to again and again. Moreover, the sets are so richly colored and decorated it's visually impressive: beautiful to the eye. The incredible thing about the writing is that it has all of the pauses of paragraph breaks throughout the film. So, there are moments when the viewer comes in on the reaction to startling information being revealed and it works perfectly to have these shots that establish the scenes, then move. Perfect.

Add to that, the musical direction is amazing. The themes seem almost constant and when "Ruby Tuesday" belts out after a moment of profound revelation, the emotions in the viewer just burst over with Richie. All of the music is great and perfectly timed.

The characters are all intriguing. Chas is amazing in his wounded sensibilities, hurt and protective. He makes so much sense in lieu of his wife's death. But all of the other characters are equally intriguing. Margot's strange backstory is hilarious and Richie's life is just plain understandably tormented. So sad, but so wonderful to watch. Eli . . . Eli is just the strangest freak to grace the screen since Edward Scissorhands (though not in the same way).

What the viewer gets is a complex drama about how people interact and what binds individuals - especially in a family - again. Royal's quest for redemption from his family is complicated several times, yet still her perseveres.

What makes the film rewatchable often is the acting. The acting here is wonderful. Gene Hackman is great as Royal. He makes Royal horrible in his simplistic selfishness. He plays Royal different from every other villain he has ever created. He embodies the worst in fatherly neglect and he does it with a sense of humor.

Gwyneth Paltrow, Anjelica Huston and Owen Wilson are each great as Margot, Ethel, and Eli. But Luke Wilson plays a mature and complex role in Richie. He is a sensible character and Wilson plays the part with serious determination that illustrate his potential as a great drama actor.

But Ben Stiller does it here. He acts as Chas. He ACTS! Here he's not Ben Stiller playing Ben Stiller as Zoolander, here he's Ben Stiller playing Chas Tenenbaum. There's no hint of Stiller's ego and repetitive humor scheme here. He gets into the part of a paranoid businessman in a red workout suit. This is the role he deserves an award for.

That's not to say the film doesn't have humor. It's funny in a lot of places, but it's also horribly sad and wrenching. It may take a few viewings to understand all of the different elements - just as a great book may require more readings - but heck, who wouldn't want to see a well stylized film about a brother with an Oedipal Complex, a father in search of redemption and a paranoid man in a workout suit with children in identical outfits rushing around trying to save themselves. It's a lot of fun, but it requires initial patience. It's worth it, though.

A great cast, intriguing characters and amazing direction make this film a must see.

For other works with Bill Murray, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Get Smart
Charlie's Angels
Cradle Will Rock


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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