The seductive, glamorous, and exquisitely fragile Glass family of J.D. Salinger’s invention might well live down the street from the fairy-tale clan that represents the soul of a fragile but bountiful New York City in Wes Anderson’s shimmering new picture The Royal Tenenbaums. Reminiscent of Salinger’s Manhattanites, the Tenenbaums are privileged natives in a landscape that doesn’t exist, and perhaps never existed, but seduces with the possibility of having existed once in a cozier, more Christmasy past.
Like the Glass progeny — and, indeed, like the young people in Anderson’s previous child’s-eye productions, ”Rushmore” and ”Bottle Rocket” — the Tenenbaum children are precocious and extraordinary, yet not protected from unhappiness by their own gifts. Chas (Ben Stiller, his truculence harnessed to unusually good effect), a child tycoon, grows into an angry, fearful, widowed father of two overprotected sons. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow, tapping into funny inner sullenness), the Tenenbaums’ adopted daughter, was once a baby-genius playwright, but is now the mournfully kohl-rimmed, fur- wrapped, chain-smoking, depressed wife of a moth-eaten neurologist (Bill Murray, fluent in Anderson’s language).
The baby, Richie (Luke Wilson), a former tennis prodigy, ruined his career out of his obsessive love for Margot, and now travels the world in woeful loneliness, his dorky Björn Borg-issue headband the only relic of his former athletic fame. Even the envious kid across the street, a hanger-on with none of the T family’s financial or cultural assets, shares in his neighbors’ mixed fortunes: Eli (Owen Wilson, who also cowrote the fabulous screenplay with Anderson) is now a famous writer of the fake-cowboy school — but he’s also got a drug problem.
Unlike the Glass kids, though, who seemed to have grown themselves from coffee beans, the presence of the Tenenbaum parents, Etheline (Anjelica Huston) and Royal (Gene Hackman), can be felt everywhere. Actually, the state of the adult children’s disrepair is a direct legacy of their parents’ long separation, during which Etheline eventually snuggled up to the family’s bow-tied, gentlemanly accountant (Danny Glover) and Royal blew just about all the goodwill anyone might have had for him with his loutish, irresponsible behavior. ”Two decades of failure and betrayal” is the cause of dysfunction, as diagnosed with dry empathy by the unseen narrator (Alec Baldwin).
There’s cause for optimism that the legacy can be changed: The movie chronicles Royal’s attempts to make amends with his family before it’s too late — and, in so doing, help mend the injuries of everyone else in the household, right down to the family nonbutler (Kumar Pallana). ”I want this family to love me,” the old man demands. And the soul of the movie’s eccentric generosity of spirit beats in Hackman’s great, wise, subversively unsentimental performance as Royal, a grandfather who teaches his overdisciplined grandsons how to bet at dogfights and cross streets against the light.
The picture’s creative pulse, though, is clearly, brightly, powerfully that of Anderson, a filmmaker whose storytelling style is so fresh, so happily idiosyncratic, and so all-encompassing that it stirs up strong response from people who either love or don’t love his stuff. But Anderson never demands love or attention, never demeans, never makes fun of his dollhouse family even when being funny about their extremis. Here’s a movie guy (the Texas-bred Anderson is too homegrown, I think, to be encumbered with a barfight-starting French designation like auteur) whose cinematic vision gives off a personal, identifiable glow.
”Tenenbaums” is intricate, fine-stitched, embroidered with sumptuous details — sometimes nuttily sumptuous — from the texture-obsessed production design of David Wasco to the garment-for-garment perfect costumes of Karen Patch. Few ensembles express sadder sad sack defiance than the matching ”shlub and sons” firetruck red track suits worn by Chas and his two boys, Ari and Uzi. Few musical choices, meanwhile, are as inspired a way to circulate air under the movie’s glass-domed biosphere as the snippets taken from Ravel’s ravishing F Major String Quartet and Vince Guaraldi’s glistening Peanuts hymn, ”Christmas Time Is Here.”
The filmmaker who knows how to speak Ravel as well as Gwyneth is indeed a royal gift to the future of American movies.