The Tenenbaums are not among the happiest of families. Papa Royal and Mama Etheline, though not divorced, are long-separated and haven't spoken in years. And their three kids, Chas, Margot and Richie, brilliant child prodigies all, have long-since flamed out, their lives now in various holding patterns.
Dysfunctional would be one of the milder words to describe this bunch. But then Royal has a particularly lousy day, and he decides it's time to summon the clan back together.
The results of this sudden attack of paterfamilias are chronicled in The Royal Tenenbaums, the latest film from director Wes Anderson (Rushmore), who specializes in characters and situations skewed all wrong: bent, if not broken, people struggling to appear normal in a world where that's pretty much impossible. Anderson's characters are quirky, his humor arch and his pacing deliberately slow - the speed with which everything moves (or lack thereof) is part of the joke.
That means that his movies can get a little cumbersome at times, and while Tenenbaums is funny enough to keep audiences satisfied, it also suffers from periods of lethargy that suggest a filmmaker a little too fond of his own material. A little trimming would have done wonders.
Narrated by Alec Baldwin, Tenenbaums opens with a series of brief thumbnail sketches: of each Tenenbaum, of the marriage of Royal (Gene Hackman) and Etheline (Anjelica Huston), of the early successes and lightning-fast falls of the three children.
There's elder son Chas, a 12-year-old marketing whiz who makes his fortune breeding Dalmatian mice (the little spotted critters turn up continually throughout the film), then becomes a real-estate tycoon, even brokering the deal that lands the family their summer home. Always a wee bit tautly strung, his world came apart when his wife died in a plane crash; since then, he's obsessed over his two sons' safety, staging impromptu fire drills that are never quick enough and inevitably end with him telling the boys they've all been fried to a crisp.
There's adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), a morose little thing whose attitude isn't helped when her father insists on emphasizing to everyone that she was adopted. Emotionally scarred and preternaturally bitter, she starts smoking at age 12 (although the family never notices) and begins writing plays that reflect her world view. Obviously, they're not jolly affairs, but they do get her noticed at a young age. Writer's block has set in, however, and she spends her days locked in the bathroom, avoiding contact with her therapist-husband, Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray).
And there's younger son Richie (Luke Wilson), a champion tennis player whose career ended with perhaps the worst championship-tournament performance ever (the headlines read "Meltdown"), and who has spent his time since traveling the world on a tramp steamer.
There's also a fourth, a would-be Tenenbaum, one-time next-door neighbor Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), a chronic hanger-on who desperately wants to be a member of the family - especially since he's got a serious case of the hots for Margot (a predilection he shares with Richie).
About the only thing that unites this group is indifference to Father. But after some financial setbacks force him to come home (under the pretense that he's dying), the clan regroups to say farewell.
Royal, however, is out to reconnect with his family - ostensibly because he needs a place to stay, but there's a sneaking suspicion that maybe he misses them all, and in his own fumbling way wants to make up for the years he's spent as a total schmuck (not that he's very good in the making-up department, but he's trying).
Anderson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Wilson, maintains a straight, deadpan tone throughout the film. Usually, that works just fine; the introductions, for example, are a stitch, and the wry humor displayed in the details of their lives - Margot, for instance, runs away to hide in a museum for several weeks, living on crackers - are absurd and hilarious.
The actors, too, are deliciously in on the jokes, especially Hackman as the unrepentantly degenerate and familially clueless Royal.
The movie winds down seriously at the end, as Anderson and Wilson struggle for a wrap that's deserving of the film's morosely anarchic spirit (they don't quite succeed). And the film's smug tone occasionally grows wearisome. The Royal Tenenbaums isn't nearly the landmark comedy it thinks it is, but its quirkiness should appeal to the highbrow funny bone in all of us.
The Royal Tenenbaums
Starring Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow
Released by Touchstone Pictures
Rated R (Language, brief nudity)
Running time 108 minutes
Sun score ***