"The Royal Tenenbaums" is one of those comedies that finds itself so amusing you almost feel like a kill-joy arriving at a conflicting opinion. Directed by Wes Anderson ("Rushmore," "Bottle Rocket") from a script he co-wrote with featured actor Owen Wilson, it's a nouveau-American-Gothic satire that emphasizes caricatures over characters and setups over actual punch lines. How far can one film get on attitude? About halfway to funny, as it turns out.
Told in faux-novel format (the chapter headings are there on the screen), this is the story of the New York Tenenbaums, a past-their-prime clan of eccentrics variously trying to run from their past, live off of it or re-enter it. Estranged father Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), a disbarred lawyer and all-around ne'er-do-well, works up a scheme to worm his way back into the family's good graces, just as momma Etheline (Angelica Huston) gets closer to her accountant, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). Son Chas (Ben Stiller), still grieving over the accidental death of his wife, subjects his two sons to needless nighttime safety drills. Adopted sister Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) has parlayed her dad's neglect into the life of a failed playwright. (Is there any other kind?) Brother Richie (Luke Wilson) is sucking in the tennis-champion days that came to an end when he had a televised meltdown on the court. And longtime family friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) approaches a meltdown of his own as he does the promotional rounds for a book he has written postulating Custer's survival of the Alamo.
Richie wears a sweatband for most of the film, the better to identify him with tennis in our minds. Chas and his boys get matching warmup suits. Revisionist Western historian Eli is usually seen in a cowboy hat and fringe. Luke and Owen Wilson, the two cast members who are related in real life, play two of the only characters not bonded by blood. It's one of those comedies, all right.
Or maybe it isn't. There's a gory, on-camera suicide attempt to deal with, which is rarely anyone's idea of a laugh riot. This movie is simply all over the place, inconsistent in tone and beset by a lopsided structure that shuttles the story toward a false climax halfway through, then sets it free to wander around in search of something else to do. Most scenes (especially the earlier, more lighthearted ones) are cut extremely short to make the lukewarm goings-on appear unbearably madcap.
Resist being beguiled by the breathless pace, and you'll realize that there's little to the Tenenbaums' loopy but well-funded misadventures -- little that couldn't be approximated, for instance, by following a particularly dotty, self-centered Winter Park family up and down Park Avenue as they shop for post-Christmas bargains. (Don't discount this endeavor as lacking in comedic potential: You might get to see one of them bitch-slap a salesgirl!)
Then again, it's doubtful any of them would be as consistently entertaining as Hackman's Royal, who makes the movie come to life nearly every time he appears on the screen. Hackman digs with obvious relish into his role as the disgraced but unrepentant paterfamilias, an old-school scalawag who wouldn't recognize propriety if it stopped him on the street and hit him up for bus fare. Royal's idea of familial bonding is teaching his grandkids the pleasures of shoplifting and hurling water balloons at taxicabs. He also has a habit of verbalizing just about every thought that floats through his transom, which is why we have the privilege of listening as he blithely refers to Glover's Henry as "a big old black buck" and, alternately, "Coltrane."
That's the great thing about movies: They can show you things you never thought you'd see.