Thursday, 23 April 2009

The Royal Tenenbaums

Lowdown: The rebirth of a dysfunctional family.
Films sporting an extensive A class cast of stars like The Royal Tenenbaums does are rare. Let me go over some of the names I have copied & pasted out of imdb: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Alec Baldwin. What a list!
Equally amazing is that fact that up until I’ve encountered a comment relating to the film in a friends’ blog I was completely unaware of The Royal Tenenbaums’ existence. Historically speaking, this is probably the result of the film being released during 2002 and me going through significant enough events in my life to allow even the most star studded film to pass below my radar. Still, having learnt about it, I didn’t waste much time before renting the DVD. Now that I watched the film I can raise another speculation that might explain why I was ignorant of The Royal Tenenbaums: It’s not that good a film.
The Royal Tenenbaums follows a rather eccentric family, the Tenenbaums, featuring parents Royal (Hackman) and his wife (Huston), as well as their three kids and the neighbor that feels like a fourth kid (Owen Wilson). Back in the good old days the Tenenbaums were a success story: one kid (Stiller) became a mega successful estate agent by the age of six; another, the adopted Paltrow, was a Broadway playwright in her teens; and the third was a three straight times winner of the US Open tennis tournament; Huston herself became a best seller writer with her book on the success of her family.
But that was many years ago; today the Tenenbaums are but a shadow of their former self: Huston broke up with Royal Hackman after some infidelities of his; Hackman spent some time in jail; Stiller became a paranoid after his wife died and his own kids are suffering as a result; Paltrow married an old guy (Murray), suffers from depression, and didn’t write a play for years; and the tennis champ’s career is all over after a major collapse at a tournament final.
The main engine behind the plot is Hackman, evicted from his hotel room after he was unable to pay for his stay. Pretending his life is about to end in six weeks, Hackman comes back home, resulting in a cataclysmic chain of events that pits all family members with their demons.
Before watching The Royal Tenenbaums I sort of assumed the film’s a comedy. I guess it's mostly the result of casting Stiller and Wilson together. I was wrong; although there are some brief smiles here and there, The Royal Tenenbaums is mostly a drama about a dysfunctional family that realizes its strength does not come from what most people deem as success (e.g., earning money, winning prestige and doing well at tennis) but rather from being there for one another. This big dramatic fuss over a crumbling family rejoining forces features very similar themes to The Darjeeling Limited, another film sporting estranged (and strange) brothers going through similar motions; which probably shouldn’t come as a surprise given that both films were directed by the one and the same Wes Anderson.
By far the most dominant feature of The Royal Tenenbaums is its eccentric presentation. Relying heavily on narration by the aforementioned Baldwyn, the entire film is made of very artificially separated scenes with a theater like artificial look to them. Camera movements are restricted and the actors tend to look it in the face, as if conscious of it being there. It is sort of funny in the beginning but the effect wears off; it ends up just being a “special attribute”.
This, perhaps, is the story of the film entire. Promising to be unique, it falters along rather uninterestingly with the slight exception of the somewhat uplifting ending. How can I put it? Little Miss Sunshine does a much better job.
Best scene: A recap on Paltrow’s adventures as she runs away from home, done in condensed flashback style. Don’t ask me why, it was just funny. Funny enough to stand out in an otherwise not that funny film.
Technical assessment: A rather dreadful DVD, with a picture that’s more like VHS and 5.1 sound that could have fooled me for mono.
Overall: I thought I’d give it less but the ending did redeem things a bit, if only to a mild 2.5 out of 5 stars.

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