CINEMA.

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A SERIES OF BEAUTIFUL STILLS IN SEARCH OF A FILM
[posted 01.31.2002]

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I DESPERATELY WANTED TO like The Royal Tenenbaums. I loved Rushmore — its tenderness, moments of graceful awkwardness (or was it awkward grace?) and love of framing its anti-hero in pre-adolescent exaltation. The spectacular use of music, especially from the lazy lingering sound of vinyl, and literary cleverness still abound in Tenenbaums, but the film is often reminiscent of having dinner with an over-educated ABD who interjects well-crafted ironic witticisms all night long.

The old guard of Gene Hackman, Angelica Huston and Danny Glover are wonderful. Hackman is adept as the disbarred lawyer, sometimes con man and absent father looking for redemption; Huston is gracious and appropriately weary as the long-suffering but accomplished mother; and Glover does his earnest thing as the family accountant who falls in love with Huston.

The film feels so unusually two-dimensional, so overly generous in scenes that are self-consciously destined for stills, that any sense of (e)motion is lost. I once had a close friend who was quite a gifted painter. He created new works prodigiously, seemingly building completely new portfolios weekly, but the growth felt painfully organic — as if one beautiful painting divided amoeba-style and yielded another. The old challenges appeared to be over and he didn’t seem particularly interested in finding new ones. Instead, he passed the time merely refining his old answers into raw technical excellence and clever monologue. And, while there is no question that Wes Anderson is a remarkable director, most of the scenes in Tenenbaums feel like rote exercises in well-studied portraiture. The feel is not entirely different from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut — a vaguely ’70s New York of abstracted Halston-like luxury that is yellowing around the edges, softly and evenly lit as if by white Christmas lights.

A defining sequence in this criticism is foundering playwright and adopted daughter Margot’s (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) meeting with her washed-up tennis pro brother Richie (Luke Wilson). Paltrow glides out of a Green Line bus (a kind of chromed vehicle with quad-round “eye-lidded” headlights, no grill and forward-swept parallelogram side windows), affectless and framed in the space between two of the buses. She moves to Wilson, who sits slouched and slightly bemused as four bellhops stride in slow-motion sync behind him. All the while jangling, minor-chord ’70s music plays gently in the soundtrack. It’s a scene that just kind of lingers in the right way, instantly recognizable and executed with exceptional precision and panache, from the faint glint in Paltrow’s eye to the wonderful sweeping strides of the bellboys.

It all feels far too mannerist, with too much of a knowing wink and smile. Anderson has such an eye for detail, as if each one tells a story — there are just too many stories trying to be told. Digesting it all becomes a phenomenally intoxicating endeavor.

Ben Stiller powers through the movie as the sibling who is most bitter over Hackman’s absenteeism, but as he races out of a room, it appears that he’s racing to the set of the movie he’s really supposed to be starring in. However, the matching red polyester Adidas jumpsuits — marrying the Beastie Boys and Mr. Kotter in one fell swoop — for him and his two sons, Ari and Uzi, are priceless.

Owen and Luke Wilson turn in decent performances. Both brothers show talent at the patented Wilson Zen Drawl, with Owen playing a drugged-out Western writer and Luke portraying a shaky brunette Björn Borg. Owen is as he always is — wide-eyed naiveté tautly covering something slightly sinister and decadent seeping out from underneath the edges. Luke’s Richie spends almost the entire film behind a pair of sunglasses, leaving us with little besides the Drawl and a great pair of “Baumer” wrist sweatbands.

The most intriguing and developed persona is Paltrow’s Margot. I have never particularly liked Paltrow — perhaps because I found her too thin, too dainty, too eager to assume the mantle of the Hepburns with their long necks that screamed patrician and short vowels that always sounded like there were an audible “h” before and after. Regardless, Paltrow is quite something in this role. Sullen, adopted and missing a finger, Margot is a tale of things to come for all of us who fear a life of mediocrity more than death. After an auspicious beginning, her following plays were met with apathy and non-reviews. If you can see the logic in locking oneself in a bathroom for six hours a day to smoke while soaking in a tub with a Sony Watchman precariously perched atop the tub faucet, then Margot is your Tenenbaum anti-hero.

In the path of mediocrity, following restlessness, there is the way station of wallowing. But even within wallowing, there is active wallowing (Hemingway-like drinking, self-destructive sex, coke and/or smack) and passive wallowing (smoking in a tub while watching Jacques Cousteau). People who haven’t had a Class B or higher meltdown don’t know how easy it is to lapse into the passive wallowing. Indeed, it actually feels quite normal, like a Club Med for the indifferent. The normalcy of it is what’s most beautiful and treated so wonderfully by the film; even the other Tenenbaums acknowledge this with their intense shock about her smoking but little over anything else.

Perhaps Margot is so likeable because the film is kinder to her than any another character. She has flaws more than quirks, and she is not about to round a corner to a new life any time soon.Tenenbaums has an insidious way of minimizing the others, often reducing them to a set of explanation-less eccentricities. Only Margot is afforded the kind of tender humanity that marked Rushmore.

It is not clear how many of these flaws are because of over-ambition or otherwise, but if Tenenbaums had loved the other characters and the stories they had to tell as much as it seems to love itself, it could have been one of the finest films of the year.

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ben kim lives and works in los angeles.