Royal Tenenbaums, The

The Royal Tenenbaums (15)

WHEN ageing miscreant Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) walks back into his family’s life after 15 years, hardly anyone is happy to see him.

In the years since he walked out his peculiar offspring – all child prodigies, variously a tennis whiz, a prolific playwright, and financial entrepreneur – have drifted into varying stages of eccentricity. In other words, they’ve failed miserably, and generally Royal is thought to be to blame.

Royal’s return heralds a move back to the kind of life they “enjoyed” when they were kids except, of course, the kids hate him, his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) has her sights set on a new beau and Royal has no option but to lie his way back into the fold. His solution is simple: tell them he’s terminally ill, rely on their sympathy and win his family back.

Yet, before too long, Royal finds he really does need the bosom of his reluctant, dysfunctional family, and begins working to restore the links he severed long ago.

Penned by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, the duo behind the superb Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums once again explores the idiosyncratic side of life with one of the most peculiar band of individuals to grace a movie since the early days of the Coen brothers.

Playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the precocious kid who becomes a dead-eyed, bored cynic. Tennis pro Richie (Luke Wilson) imploded and disappeared off around the world. Chas (Ben Stiller) lost his wife in a freak accident and is now obsessed with personal safety.

Everything changes when their lying, cheating unreliable father materialises, and the journey they all take makes for arguably the kookiest movie of the year.

The main strength of The Royal Tenenbaums comes from the writers’ delicious knack for nailing character. Every role is conceived with comedy in mind but with a root in reality, while the actors’ interplay is perfect, allowing each character and situation the freedom to expand and stretch. It all works exceptionally well.

This is comedy from a skewed perspective. The performers – particularly Hackman – leap headlong into the action with abandon, while the observational humour and cock-eyed, microscopic examination of life hits home with the precision of a missile.

Impossible to categorise, The Royal Tenenbaums is supremely odd. Unique and utterly bizarre, it builds on the eccentric folk of Rushmore by making the very most of a stellar cast as you’ve never seen them before.

High points include Hackman’s systematic corruption of his closeted grandsons (culminating in them riding, whooping and hollering, on the back of a garbage truck), a rapid journey through Margot’s complex past, including her diary of lovers, and a running gag involving a filthy taxi company named Gypsy Cabs.

The Royal Tenenbaums, like Monty Python, The Comic Strip and Saturday Night Live before it, will undoubtedly come as an acquired taste, but it is packed full of terrific gags and one-liners and offers Hackman the role of his career.

The screen lights up whenever he enters the frame. I defy you not to laugh – even if your funny bone has been forcibly extracted.

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