Wes Anderson's second feature Rushmore reminded me, in its tale of a wise-guy prep schooler frightened of his own loneliness, of J. D. Salinger's classic novel The Catcher in the Rye, only lighter and shallower. So when I heard that Anderson's next film involved a family of child prodigies who grow up to be unhappy adults, I figured this would be his riff on Salinger's other novel Frannie and Zooey, only lighter and shallower. And I was right, to some degree.
The Royal Tenenbaums concerns the titular Royal (Gene Hackman), the ousted patriarch of a well-to-do New York clan, who goes broke and thus feigns stomach cancer in order to worm his way back into the family. Simultaneously, the three miserable Tenenbaum children all find themselves gravitating back home, one by one: Chas (Ben Stiller), an angry father of two who has recently lost his wife in a plane crash; Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), Royal's adopted daughter, who hides in the bathroom from her suffocating older husband (Bill Murray); and Richie (Luke Wilson), a failed tennis star who has been traveling around the world as he mulls over his hidden love for Margot.
Cheery bunch, no? Well, see, that's the problem. Described as such, The Royal Tenenbaums sounds like a wallow in misery. But Anderson's visual style is just so damn peppy that, when the tragedy finally does poke through the characters' facades, I felt nothing because of the film's glib setup. Though Anderson does subtly and imperceptibly shift his style from overly formalistic, balanced shots to a more relaxed, asymmetrical film staging as the story unfurls, the film retains its crisp, colorful pop look, which betrays the story's suggestion that life is sloppier than we want it to be.
The Royal Tenenbaums is still entertaining: many of the lines are deadpan funny and that's one hip soundtrack, blasting everything from the Ramones to Nick Drake. But its own quirkiness undermines the serious issues at its core. With Ben Stiller and his boys in matching red Adidas sweatsuits and Owen Wilson hamming it up in a cowboy getup, the story fumbles in its attempts at gravitas. Despite the darker themes of drug addiction, marital infidelity, and suicide, everything is so shiny and neat that it's hard to believe anything bad could happen to this bunch.
The reason why Bottle Rocket worked, and why Rushmore worked somewhat, was that the characters were small town dopes with small time dreams. You get the sense here that, with this film, Anderson has bitten off more than he can chew. The all-star cast (which also includes Anjelica Huston and Danny Glover) doesn't help: they're seasoned pros, but there is little chemistry between most of them (though I liked Hackman's flakiness and found Paltrow strangely alluring as a spooky poet-type with raccoon eye shadow), and mostly I just saw actors reciting words from a script, not real characters.
I suppose a lot of folks will like The Royal Tenenbaums, but I'm standing my ground here: the film is not nearly as deep or as meaningful as it thinks it is.