High Hopes

Wes Andersons tragicomedy of the gifted child

Set in a gently fictionalized New York (the taxis are all heaps from the Gypsy Cab Co.), The Royal Tenenbaums unfolds primarily inside the family's sprawling brownstone, a warren of startling color, fanciful bibelots and objets trouvés. As in The Magnificent Ambersons, one of the story's touchstones (Salinger's Glass family is another), the house tells a crucial part of the story, first through the grandeur of its turrets (there's even a family flag), then 22 years later, after the children have grown, through its genteel dilapidation. By then, Royal is long gone and the children have scattered. Chas (Ben Stiller) is lost in his work; Richie (Luke Wilson) is literally adrift, a passenger on a transoceanic ship; back in the city, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) spends hours in a tub as her husband, Raleigh (Bill Murray), taps on the locked bathroom door. Each of the children has spectacularly failed, and failure has sealed them in solipsism: Margot enjoyed early success as a playwright but soon fizzled, while Richie went from tennis champion to burnout during one calamitous match. Entrepreneur Chas has endured a more brutal comeuppance: he lost his wife in a plane crash. Always the straightest Tenenbaum, he has become a neurotic protector of his sons, to the point where he can no longer distinguish between genuine peril and the bumps of everyday life.

Chas eventually figures out the difference, but only after he returns to the Tenenbaum home and surrenders to adulthood. In Rushmore, there's another prodigy who earns his comeuppance, losing a woman he loves to his surrogate father (Murray again); but in losing, he becomes the very child he'd desperately tried to outgrow. In Anderson's films, adults and children rarely figure out how to play the roles that age has assigned them, and who can blame them? In The Royal Tenenbaums, the prodigies have become disappointed adults because they're stuck in the dreams of childhood—stuck there precisely because the dreams were so seductive. We first meet the kids through a series of fast, funny montage sequences: there's Margot in fur and kohl eyeliner reading Chekhov and writing, Chas wheeling and dealing in Brooks Brothers, Richie racking up trophies. The sense of detail in these sequences is beautiful and fastidious, recalling the obsessiveness you sometimes see in children's play, in the fantastic worlds they create from glass animals and figurines. But as the silky-voiced narrator (Alec Baldwin) guides us through these dioramas of precocious talent, it becomes increasingly evident that the museum is also something of a mausoleum.

It happens to all of us, the fall from grace. Much depends on what happens next, naturally, but much depends on how you remember it—as comedy, tragedy or, as Anderson has, both. The world of The Royal Tenenbaums initially seems as unreal and at times almost as precious as that inside a glass paperweight. And it's clear from the sheer verve—the giddiness, even—with which he films the children's early years that Anderson is as comfortable tucked inside his meticulousness as the Tenenbaums are tucked inside the family home—he's more comfortable in a world of his own making than with the world beyond. But, like Chas, Richie and Margot, he's starting to shake things up. By the time the children are grown, Anderson has loosened his style, almost as if he, too, were finally free of the constraints of so much early perfection. The framing seems less fastidious, the camera movements more gestural, while the vapor of self-congratulation that perfumed the Tenenbaums' childhood has been blown away by the truth of adult lives in all their pain and newfound grace. In a film that verges on greatness, it is a sign of terrific faith, as well as of Anderson's promise as a director, that when one of the characters in The Royal Tenenbaums wears hospital pajamas after a detour into grief, the words over his heart read, "recovery area."

The Royal Tenenbaums was directed by Wes Anderson; written by Anderson and Owen Wilson; produced by Anderson, Barry Mendel and Scott Rudin; and stars Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow and Owen Wilson. Now playing in select LA theaters.

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