Royals, Lords, Jesters

Joshua RothkopfDecember 7, 2001

What are you looking at?

High dra­ma, long-wind­ed sagas, maybe even a lit­tle vio­lence: Soon many of us will be return­ing home to fam­i­ly. Whats that you say? Yours deserves a three-hour movie too? I thought so, but until the cam­era team touch­es down on the front lawn, well have to make do with oth­er extra­or­di­nary clans: twirling von Trapps, blood-and-sauce-spat­tered Cor­leone­sor at least those tough-lov­ing Sopra­nos.

The Roy­al Tenen­baums is about a fam­i­ly of lapsed genius­es no less, three child prodi­gies uncom­fort­ably reunit­ing with estranged par­ents and lovers at their New York town­house, the rose-wall­pa­pered site of so much for­mer glo­ry. If it sounds bit­ter­sweet, it is, but like the best fam­i­ly albums, Tenen­baums is split wide with open-heart­ed­ness, and equal­ly gen­er­ous with its tri­umphs and failures.

Is there a gen­tler chron­i­cler of youth­ful ambi­tion than Wes Ander­son? With Rush­more, he gave uncom­mon voice to the small­est of objects, a board­ing-school scrap­book of medals and awards, of kite-fly­ing and elab­o­rate stage plays of Ser­pi­co. Ander­son tends to turn his frame into a prosce­ni­um, onto which march tiny per­form­ers and title cards. The effect would come off as pre­cious were it not for a lov­ing sense of preser­va­tion, even stronger in Tenen­baums: a clos­et stocked floor-to-ceil­ing with well-worn board games, a tiny hel­met for a pet hawk that reads Mordecai. 

— —  —  —  —  — –

Ander­son often crams it all into sprint­ing assem­blages that have become his sig­na­ture­ex­hil­a­rat­ing accom­plish­ment sequences like Max Fish­ers tor­rent of extracur­ric­u­lar activ­i­ties in Rush­more. These make even more sense here, cat­a­loging the long-trea­sured snap­shots of a geneal­o­gy of over-achiev­ers: Mar­got (Gwyneth Pal­trow), a grant-win­ning play­wright at age 15; Chas (Ben Stiller), a finan­cial whiz-kid of preter­nat­ur­al gifts; Richie (Luke Wil­son), a pre­co­cious ten­nis pro once known inter­na­tion­al­ly as The Baumer.

The kids are all grown up now, retreat­ed into their pri­vate neu­roses: Chas has lost his wife to a plane crash and mon­i­tors his two young sons, Ari and Uzi, with a drill sergeants inten­si­ty. (The three of them, all clad in pri­ma­ry red Adi­das track­suits for the sake of quick spot­ting, make for a bizarre nucle­us them­selves.) Mar­got lan­guish­es in six-hour baths and an inert mar­riage, while Richie, after chok­ing spec­tac­u­lar­ly on the court, roams the sea on pas­sen­ger freighters. Ander­son sea­sons these unre­solved ten­sions with the unex­pect­ed return of Roy­al (Gene Hack­man), the pater famil­ias.

A dis­barred lawyer fresh­ly evict­ed from his hotel res­i­dence, Roy­al, who aban­doned the fam­i­ly when his chil­dren were small, strains under his own lifes short­com­ings. One cant con­ceive of anoth­er actor inhab­it­ing the tricky rolee­qual parts bluff, blus­ter and shamemuch less nail­ing it as Hack­man does, in the ful­fill­ment of his mas­ter­ful career. Its no stretch to imag­ine how he and his arche­ol­o­gist wife, played by Angel­i­ca Hus­ton, could have pro­duced such a whip-smart bunch. Roy­als sen­si­bil­i­ty can take relief in being called a sono­fabitch and not an ass­hole; he can pon­der the con­se­quences of his own betray­al of respon­si­bil­i­ty while treat­ing his grand­sons to a whirl­wind adven­ture of shoplift­ing, water­bal­loon­ing strangers and pig­gy­back­ing on garbage trucks.

Tenen­baums does­nt explore issues of rejec­tion and class as rig­or­ous­ly as Salinger or even Rush­more did; this time were on the inside with the fam­i­ly. (Theres still some room for dis­com­fit­ed guests, notably Dan­ny Glover as a dig­ni­fied suit­or to Hus­ton; Bill Mur­ray, beard­ed and morose as Mar­gots hus­band; and the superb Owen Wil­son as the cow­boy-next-door, grown up into a wild, wan­na-be Tenen­baum.) But some­thing sim­i­lar to expul­sion, a faint­ly trag­ic loss of iden­ti­ty, divides the con­fi­dent wun­derkind Chas select­ing ties off his motor­ized rack from the grown-up ver­sion, who demon­strates his toy to unim­pressed kids. Pre­co­cious­ness only lasts so long; fam­i­ly is for­ev­er. In the beau­ti­ful moments when Ander­son judi­cious­ly reveals matu­ri­ty to his splin­tered tri­belike Mar­got strid­ing in slow-motion, a secret grin on her face, toward her baby broth­er wait­ing at the depot while Nico coos These Days on the sound­track­the future looks bright if only for being less dysfunctional.

Ander­sons stalled eccentrics might remind you of Hol­ly­woods own ambi­tious phase­of Five Easy Pieces or Harold and Maudealso inter­rupt­ed pre­ma­ture­ly. What fol­lowed in its stead, all wiz­ards and maid­ens and glow­ing swords, will sure­ly be reworked as long as there are accoun­tants and teen-age boys. This is not to call the first install­ment of The Lord of the Rings a mer­ce­nary under­tak­ing; if any­thing, its been fleshed out with a fair degree of warmth and even a joke about dwarf-tossing. 

The vision­ary respon­si­ble (all trilo­gies, it seems, spring from such stock) is Peter Jack­son, a New Zealan­der who qui­et­ly turned out one of the bona-fide mas­ter­pieces of the past decade, Heav­en­ly Crea­tures, a true sto­ry about two school­girls who com­mit­ted mur­der to pro­tect their bud­ding affair. Jack­son infused their plot­ting with elab­o­rate fan­ta­sy sequences of uni­corns and mag­ic cas­tles, lit­tle pink explo­sions of their pri­vate escapes. The Fel­low­ship of the Ring, as you may have heard, is not about school­girls, but bring­ing it off must have required a com­pa­ra­ble psy­chic obses­sion. And were lucky to have on the job a film­mak­er acquaint­ed with real human beings.

The gleam­ing Ring itself is the ulti­mate source of pow­er in all of fog-shroud­ed Mid­dle-earth, con­test­ed over for cen­turies by mor­tals, hob­bits, elves, orcs, the Gol­lumOK, wake up. Actu­al­ly, Jack­son and his team have achieved some­thing close to mirac­u­lous nav­i­gat­ing the texts den­si­ty, mak­ing it clear and com­pelling with a min­i­mum of prun­ing. $300 mil­lion helps too, but the human grace notes are key: Ian McKel­lan makes a tow­er­ing (if slight­ly self-amused) Gan­dalf, and Eli­jah Woods Fro­do Bag­gins is an uncer­tain quester.

Jack­son is work­ing from obvi­ous pas­sion; he knows the most spe­cial of effects are expect­ed of him but deploys his tech­nol­o­gy smart­ly. Cer­tain life-size actors have been shrunk or height­ened by trick sets and com­put­ers (McKel­lans head hov­ers dan­ger­ous­ly close to the chan­de­liers of a hob­bits cozy abode), and only the sub­tlest tweak­ings are made to New Zealands already rav­ish­ing glens. Fel­low­ship leaves you vague­ly exhaust­ed but far less than one might have guessed; its a trib­ute to Jack­sons faith that you exit mus­ing not on the mon­ey but the spell of Tolkiens quaint vari­ety of deep thoughts, once so beloved by the coun­ter­cul­ture: To bear a ring of pow­er is to be alone. (A note of con­cern to Jack­son, the lone­ly bear­er: Before next win­ter, you may want to rethink that sec­ond books title, The Two Tow­ers.)

— —  —  —  —  — –

Would it real­ly be Christ­mas with­out a remake? The first Oceans Eleven was basi­cal­ly an excuse for the Rat Pack to do its well-mar­i­nat­ed shtick on cam­era, and in a place where they could all prop­er­ly spend a per diemVe­gas. (Did the crew just meet them out there?) The plot, like a maraschi­no cher­ry, still feels thrown in at the last minute: a mul­ti-casi­no heist of hubris­tic blus­ter, promis­ing eight-fig­ure pay­offs for all 11 hoods. Go ahead and do the math if you like; my con­sid­er­able plea­sure came from savor­ing the cock­tail, which now gets its punch not from aged spir­its but the skill of the bartender. 

As we live and breathe, Steven Soder­bergh is mak­ing the best kid-stuff for adults since Howard Hawks put Cary Grant in a som­brero. Its no small achieve­ment. Too few direc­tors come to the real­iza­tion that speed can actu­al­ly relax an ensem­ble: George Clooney and Brad Pitt riff mag­nif­i­cent­ly on the Frank and Deano roles respec­tive­ly, and with even bet­ter chem­istry. As for the 11, though its hard to choose, high­est adu­la­tion must be offered up to Elliot Goulds gauche financier, whose hairy chest has room for a gold­en chai, a star of David, and what looks like a minia­ture Ark of the Covenant.

A piece of non­sense? Fine, if you must insist, but a per­fect pieceone with room for a fold­able Chi­nese con­tor­tion­ist, remote-con­trolled cars and Julia Roberts, not to men­tion the still-wit­ty stroke of hav­ing all those can­dy-col­ored street­lights sud­den­ly go black after the Grease Man cuts the pow­er. Or, to trans­late into High Roller-ese: Dat is da sex­i­est thing I ever seen.

Joshua Rothkopf has been cov­er­ing cin­e­ma for In These Times since 1999. His work has appeared in The Vil­lage Voice, The Chica­go Read­er, Isth­mus and City Pages, among oth­er publications.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH