When Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is kicked out of his hotel room for not paying his bills as he has run out of money, he decides to call on his estranged family to help out by telling them he is dying of cancer, and thereby playing on their sympathy and with any luck managing to secure a roof over his head in his old house, which is still lived in by his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston). She had hoped to have seen the last of him, in fact they all had...
Wes Anderson and co-scriptwriter and star Owen Wilson (in the days when he had time to write his own vehicles) followed up their cult hit Rushmore with another deadpan comedy, this time centred around a family that lends new meaning to the word "dysfunctional". Just about everyone in the film has more than their fair share of problems and flaws, as this truly set out one of Anderson's regular themes, perhaps the most defining: the father figure the characters want to have faith in, yet is exposed as having metaphorical feet of clay.
The actors were excellent, well chosen as ever with this director's canny eye for casting; nearing the end of his career, Gene Hackman as Royal was charming, untrustworthy and a bad influence on those around him. His offspring are geniuses and one time child prodigies: Chas (Ben Stiller) a business expert, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) a playwright, and Richie (Luke Wilson) a tennis champion. But they've all seen better days as their early promise has curdled into sour failure and crippling insecurities. Then there's family friend Eli (Owen Wilson), now a successful novelist and lover of Margot, but suffering from a drug dependency.
The relationships are complex, yet somehow cartoonishly contrived, not necessarily a bad thing for a comedy drama; for example, Richie is in love with his adopted sister Margot who is married to a psychologist (Bill Murray) who appears to be some kind of father substitute she has settled on after a string of wildly differing marriages and affairs. And you can never quite tell whether Royal is ruthlessly taking advantage of his family, or whether he's genuinely missing them and wants to be part of their lives again. Maybe it's a little of both: certainly when he meets his grandchildren he leads them astray as if he were the kid from school your parents warned you to stay well away from as a bad influence.
The Royal Tenenbaums has an anecdotal feel, and the humour is more likely to elicit a wry smile rather than roars of laughter, which some may regard as a common flaw in Anderson's work; the scenes between Danny Glover (as Etheline's latest, more appropriate suitor) and Hackman were marvellously played, in particular. For the most part, the film concentrates on the emotional damage that love and hate can do, so that the happy ending seems a bit too pat - can they all have worked out their problems so easily after what we've seen? Perhaps they deserve happiness after what they've put each other through, and now have time and space to reflect on what Royal means to them, which was how many of this talent's movies concluded: the secret of how he burrowed his way into so many consciousnesses?
Wes Anderson's world may be too self-contained and quirky to have much lasting emotional resonance outside of his fanbase, but he makes touching films about people you want to see getting through their lives, despite themselves. His devil was, as ever, in the details, with the art direction catered for with finely honed accuracy - not for nothing was the cupboard full of board games a much-paused scene on disc. Listen for: the fine choice of songs to accompany the action, as usual appealing to the hipster market that adopted Anderson with such dedication (Nick Drake, check, Nico, check, and so forth); the measured narration by Alec Baldwin. But the best joke was probably heard early on, regarding Owen Wilson's book Old Custer which has labelled him the American James Joyce by the cognoscenti, so spot on that it became an internet meme to shoot down absurd pretensions. Original music by Mark Mothersbaugh.