But from writer-director Wes Anderson and his coscribe, Owen Wilson, one expects more than frivolous fun that bears no lingering effect. Their previous films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, were funky, resonant, deeply felt works about screwups and outcasts trying to make their marks on the world with convoluted holdups or elaborately staged plays. The Royal Tenenbaums instead feels like the work of a visionary in need of stronger glasses. Anderson is so obsessed with the details -- the murals on the walls, the books that line the shelves, the board games that fill a closet -- that he somehow misses the big picture: These characters never come to life, never engage us, never make us feel.
It's as though Anderson shot his and Wilson's script down to every last period and comma and illustration but forgot to tell the actors just what it all means -- except for the obvious, which is that nothing hurts, and heals, more than family. As a result, all the actors but Gene Hackman -- as Royal Tenenbaum, a hurricane refusing to become a light breeze -- seem adrift and void, lost in a sad haze of their own creation. Maybe that's to be expected in a film about prodigies who piss away their potential, children who grow up only to break their promise. When the gifted squander their gifts, all that's left, perhaps, are empty boxes and crumpled paper; little wonder, then, that the Tenenbaum kids often do little more than stare into the emptiness their lives have become after two decades of "betrayal, failure and disaster."
As Alec Baldwin's voiceover informs us, the Tenenbaum children -- Richie (Luke Wilson), Chas (Ben Stiller) and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) -- were once so bright and brilliant that their hypersupportive mother, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), even wrote a book about them. (Indeed, it's the goal of every character here to pen a book of some kind; maybe that's why the film plays like a novel with every other page missing.) Richie, known as "The Baumer" during his days on the pro-tennis circuit, played (and dressed) like Bjorn Borg, until one day he suffered a breakdown on the court; he has kept the Fila headband but disappeared to sail the world behind dark shades and a bum's beard. Chas was brokering million-dollar real-estate deals in his teens; now he's a single father of two boys, Uzi and Ari, who sport the same tailor-made red Adidas jumpsuits and curly 'dos as their sullen father's. Margot, the adopted daughter never allowed to forget it, was a playwright by the ninth grade who penned such works as Erotic Transference. But her success, too, exists well in the past: She now spends her days hiding in a bathtub, secretly chain-smoking and watching TV -- anything to avoid contact with her husband, neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), whom she begrudgingly admits she "kind of" loves.
The Tenenbaum children blame Royal for their failures; he's the convenient scapegoat, the object of their flagrant ire. Never do Chas, Richie or Margot blame themselves; to do so would mean they're capable of an emotion other than bitterness. After all, they often speak of love -- in Richie and Margot's case, an incestuous kind -- but do so as if they have absolutely no idea what the word means. Even Margot's longtime affair with next-door neighbor Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), a would-be Cormac McCarthy given to overwrought prose ("friscilating dusk light") and an unhealthy diet of cocaine and video porn, is disquietingly bereft of passion. Margot, a woman in her thirties dressed in Izods and barrettes like a child in her preteens, is more like her adopted dad than she imagines: She sleeps around to feel something but in the end gives absolutely nothing.
It's only when Royal discovers Etheline's romance with courtly accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) and returns home, insisting he's dying, that the family comes together one more time -- if only to heap upon their father more scorn that has lain dormant in the 22 years since Etheline kicked Royal out of their majestic, oddball Manhattan home. Under the same roof again, the family conjures all its demons -- not to exorcise them, but to exercise them. (The Tenenbaums let nothing go, harboring old grudges like Anne Frank in the attic.) Royal, broke and desperate, reveals himself as a racist (he refers to Henry as a "big ol' black buck") codger, but at least he has personality; the rest of the family members are like ghosts haunting an old house, transparent shadows awaiting liberation from a self-made purgatory. Especially lacking is Chas, whose revelation at film's end is sudden and inexplicable; the Tenenbaum kids are strangers -- to each other, to themselves and, sadly, to us.
Upon leaving the film, a friend suggested kindly that The Royal Tenenbaums is nothing more than a great pop song -- a three-minute smile spread over two hours. That observation is no real surprise: As in Rushmore, Anderson loads his soundtrack with choice nuggets by Nick Drake, the Rolling Stones, Nico and, finally, two selections from the A Charlie Brown Christmas television special, which he's wanted to use since Bottle Rocket. (Sadly, the soundtrack this time around feels too pat, easy shorthand meant to fill in the copious blanks.) And you want to cheer its ambitions, because The Royal Tenenbaums possesses moments of sheer delight and surprise -- Owen Wilson's performance, for instance, or the flashback to Margot's discovery of her real parents in Indiana. But as a movie, it's little more than a remarkable New Yorker short story -- easy to pick up, easy to put down.