It's tough to be churlish when reviewing The Royal Tenenbaums because it's so darn good, goddammit. Much as I would love to call Gwyneth Paltrow a rich, well-connected no-talent who gets work based solely on her cuteness and contacts, I really can't here, because she's perfect in the role of the grown-up childhood genius. And I'd love to remind people that Ben Stiller is the privileged son of second-rate comedians whose most famous film is the low-brow Meet the Parents, but his comic timing is impeccable in this film, and his acting is spot on.
Similarly, I'd like to point out that Gene Hackman is one of the best film actors in history, but lately all he gets are pathetically broad roles in stupid, simple action films. But I can't say that anymore, because Royal Tenenbaums is anything but simple, and Hackman's performance manages to partake of the broad comic stylings of the Catskill school while still being human, touching and affecting.
And sadly I have nothing bad whatsoever to say about director Wes Anderson. The man is like a god, and not like the namby-pamby God of the New Testament with the forgiving all sins and making a place for the weak and sinful. No, he demands absolute perfection from his cast and cameraman, and he gets it. He's like one of those Greek gods with the fire from heaven and the threats and the call for excellence from all his worshippers.
I can't even assault Anderson's taste in music, or his soundtrack. A lot of good directors will fill a soundtrack with their favorite, overplayed pop hits, and we quickly see that their talent in visual storytelling is not matched by any comprehension of what makes music interesting. Anderson, on the other hand, mines the underside of pop history for little ditties that not only are excellent but fit perfectly with his script and cinematography, as though they were organically related. The music never tells you what to feel, because instead of using it to set a mood, he uses it as part of the mood.
So I'm left with trying to explain why this movie is so good, and that's difficult to do. It's not that it's a great story ... the plot is almost secondary to the point of the film. Nor is the script constantly quotable. In fact, many of the most telling moments involve the characters silently staring at each other.
This extreme economy of dialogue is matched by the acting styles. Stiller, Paltrow and Luke Wilson play the grown-up Tenenbaum children. All were geniuses in their field: Paltrow was an award-winning playwright, Stiller a millionaire investor and Wilson a world-champion tennis player. All had horrible breakdowns early in their careers, and all have been coasting or vegging out since then. And all of them have the same mannerisms. This is essential to Anderson's film: In spite of being highly discernible, the characters actually act like members of the same family.
It's this kind of tacit touch that makes Royal Tenenbaums work. While characters argue or plot or move about, the background is full of tiny touches that tell most of the story. A closet full of board games, or a bedroom decorated with naïve paintings, or a hallway that is inexplicably painted a flaming pink all give glimpse of the characters' inner lives.
This is necessary because Paltrow, Stiller and Wilson portray people who are incapable of freely expressing their emotions. Their inner worlds are told only through their outer accoutrements, and Anderson makes perhaps the best use of the wide screen in modern filmmaking, stuffing the shots with the weird detritus of the lives of these failed geniuses.
Hackman plays their father, a self-described asshole who quit the family when the kids were still kids. He embezzled money from his businessman son, bet on his other son's tennis games and offered cruel criticisms of his daughter's plays. Then he left them, set up shop as a sleazy corporate lawyer, got disbarred and vanished from the public eye.
The movie begins with Hackman being kicked out of the hotel room where he lives. Broke, he decides to reinsinuate himself into his family by claiming that he's dying.
While this is the plot, it's not the story. The story, rather, is about people who peaked early, and about the effect these prodigies had on their friends and family.
But it's the imagery that tells that story, and the images are what will stick with you. There's Paltrow's first play, performed when she was 9 years old, which seems to feature only people in animal costumes who are bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds. Or there's the tessellated book covers that form the transitional device between sequences. Or the odd montages of Hackman taking his young grandsons out for some shoplifting and vandalism.
It's all so good that I'm reluctant to give any more of it away. I can't imagine Royal Tenenbaums will have tremendously broad appeal, but for fans of the visual aspect of filmmaking it can't be beat. Plus, as a special bonus for a film coming out this time of year, it's entirely hobbit-free.