A Royal Scam

All About the Tenenbaums: From left, Grant Rosenmeyer, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Gene Hackman.Photo: James Hamilton

If ever a movie was dressed to the nines in “sensibility,” The Royal Tenenbaums is it. Wes Anderson, who co-wrote the script with Owen Wilson and directed it, is the cinematic equivalent of a window dresser at Barneys: Everything and everyone on display in his frame is posed, mannequinlike, for instant absorption; every square inch of space is crammed with conceptual doodads. It’s not just that Anderson doesn’t let anything breathe; it’s not clear that there was ever breath to begin with.

I enjoyed Anderson’s first feature, Bottle Rocket, which was loopy in a sharp, knockabout way. His next film, Rushmore, although overrated, had moments of emotional pungency, mostly from Bill Murray, indicating Anderson might have more on his mind than wowing us with his gift for boomerang dialogue and breakneck eccentricity. The Royal Tenenbaums, a dark comedy, is a bigger production than these others and has a tip-top cast, including Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Danny Glover, Bill Murray, and brothers Owen and Luke Wilson. Anderson has moved up the budget ladder without sacrificing any of his peculiarities; if anything, he’s an odder moviemaker than ever. Frostier, too. His movie is about a family of pathological-genius malcontents, but his dry-eye, dry-ice dramaturgy doesn’t do much to draw us to them. Anderson is too damn smart for his (or our) own good.

Perhaps he’s too ambitious as well. The Royal Tenenbaums tries to be a lot of different things: a family saga along the lines of The Magnificent Ambersons or The Hotel New Hampshire; a tribute to J. D. Salinger, especially Franny and Zooey; and a love letter to the New York that Salinger wrote about (although the film is seemingly contemporary and light on landmarks). That’s too many balls for Anderson to juggle. Instead of deepening, the film zings along from tableau to frozen tableau.

Gene Hackman, piling on the gusto, plays con man Royal Tenenbaum, the family patriarch who abandoned the brood years ago and a former litigator whose financial-whiz-kid son Chas (Stiller) had him disbarred. Royal, who describes himself as “one-quarter Hebrew and three-quarters Mick,” has been living for 22 years in a hotel and feigns dying to get back with his wife and children, who, for various unhappy reasons, have reassembled in the family home. Besides Chas, widowed with two young sons, there’s Richie (Luke Wilson), a tennis prodigy who choked during a tournament and dropped out of the circuit to sail the seas; and adopted daughter Margot (Paltrow), an acclaimed playwright while still in high school but now a near-catatonic who wears mink and thick black eyeliner. Richie is secretly, torturously in love with her. Their mother, Etheline (Huston, in excellent form), carries the deadpan weariness of someone for whom life has become an unending nutso pageant.

Anderson introduces the movie as if we were watching the unfolding of a cherished novel. He gives us shots of pages turning and divides the action into chapters; a voice-over narrator (Alec Baldwin) lays out the exposition. Anderson wants us to perceive not only the charm but also the falsity of that overlit, old-Hollywood style of presentation. The implication is that his brainy distancing effects and wink-wink ironies will lead us in the end to something more emotionally genuine, cleansed of sentimentality. It doesn’t really work out that way. Margot may have been zombified by her father’s neglect, but, except for a marvelous scene where Royal tries to make amends by taking her to lunch, she remains pretty much undead. Chas, who puts his children through grueling fire drills because he fears for their safety in a dangerous world, is nevertheless a furious blank. Richie, the most compelling of the trio, still comes across as not much more than a cipher in torment. What these people go through may seem horrific, but Anderson is always waiting in the wings with a cackle. He’s like a smart, sensitive adolescent who is afraid to let down his guard and show us how much he cares. When he finally does drop his defenses, you may wish he hadn’t.

If a more frankly emotional filmmaker had been at the helm, this family of wunderkinder who peaked early and now have only their weirdness to show for it might have resonated with pathos. Perhaps all of us, in our mopier moments, fantasize our youth as a time of prodigious promise, and regard our current life as a trickle of what might have been. Anderson doesn’t draw deeply on this shared emotion, though, or make us feel much connection with the people on the screen. What he seeks in the end is their redemption; in other words, he wants to conventionalize them, flatten them out. It’s a bit like watching a Mad magazine cover with Alfred E. Newman morph into a Norman Rockwell family portrait. Anderson is something of a prodigy himself, and he’s riddled with talent, but he hasn’t figured out how to be askew and heartfelt at the same time. When he does, he’ll probably make the movie The Royal Tenenbaums was meant to be, and it’ll be a sight to see.

The most impressive moment in Cameron Crowe’s new movie Vanilla Sky comes early on: an unfaked shot of daytime Times Square completely deserted. It’s genuinely eerie. Otherwise the film is mostly ersatz eerie. Tom Cruise plays David Aames, a hotshot executive who inherited a publishing empire from his father and carries on like a spoiled playboy. His girlfriend, played by Cameron Diaz, wants a real commitment, but David glimpses the dark-eyed Sofia (Penélope Cruz) at a party and the swoonfest commences. Based on an equally convoluted and unsatisfying 1997 Spanish film, Open Your Eyes, also co-starring Cruz, the movie is about the sleepy-time nightmare David endures in order to realize true love.

Didn’t Cruise have enough of this am-I-really-dreaming stuff with Eyes Wide Shut? Crowe serves up David as a martyr: He’s suffering because he wants to live a real life. (The unreal one he’s leading, at least in his playboy phase, doesn’t seem all that bad to me, but then again, I’m shallow.) On the way to salvation, David injures his face in an accident, and Cruise spends a lot of his screen time modeling his character’s deep facial scars. Vanilla Sky is probably the most garishly masochistic star turn since Mel Gibson’s The Man Without a Face. It could also be the most baroque chick flick ever made, the freakazoid spawn of An Affair to Remember and The Matrix.

Sometimes a movie strikes a deep chord with audiences more for what it’s about than for what it accomplishes. Iris may turn out to be such a film. It stars Judi Dench as the English novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch and Jim Broadbent as John Bayley, her literary-critic husband of 43 years who wrote two best-selling memoirs, Elegy for Iris and Iris and Her Friends, about, among other things, Murdoch’s descent into Alzheimer’s. Derived largely from those memoirs, the movie employs a cross-cutting structure involving flashbacks of the courting couple, played by Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville (who is such a dead ringer for Broadbent that he might want to investigate his paternity). The power of this material lies in the horror of seeing a woman for whom words were everything reduced to wordlessness. It’s understandable that Richard Eyre, who directed from a script he co-wrote with Charles Wood, would want to spare us a long, slow slog into despair, but by continually interrupting the sequences of the adult couple with scenes of the young pair, he shatters the emotional power of Dench and Broadbent. We don’t need to see shots of the young Iris acting as a nymphlike free spirit in order to recognize what she will lose as an adult: It’s already there for us to see, in Dench’s grave, beseeching eyes.

In Brief
Stockard Channing has rarely had strong roles to play onscreen, but she has one in The Business of Strangers, as an executive who gets stuck overnight in an airport hotel with her young, pathological assistant (Julia Stiles). She’s formidably good – a career woman in extremis – but the movie, which was written and directed by Patrick Stettner, otherwise unfortunately resembles a product of the Neil LaBute Finishing School.

The Royal Tenenbaums
Directed by Wes Anderson; starring Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Vanilla Sky
Directed by Cameron Crowe; starring Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, and Cameron Diaz.
Directed by Richard Eyre; starring Judi Dench.
The Business of Strangers
Starring Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles.

A Royal Scam