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Twee-hugging Wes Anderson

Review: 'Tenenbaums' well acted, too cutesy

By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- "The Royal Tenenbaums," director Wes Anderson's highly anticipated follow-up to 1999's "Rushmore," basically has its heart in the right place. But Anderson's coy wistfulness is so rigorously organized, you feel like he grew the heart in a test tube.

The general impression is that of a New Yorker-informed nerd who's determined to get all the pretty girls to kiss him for being so sensitive.

Anderson's story, about three eccentric, Manhattan-bred children who strive to reconcile with their long-gone father when he feigns stomach cancer, is presented as a cross between John Irving and J.D. Salinger. Chapter headings and quaint illustrations even pop up to offset an undercurrent of droll nihilism. Alec Baldwin supplies dulcet narration that sounds like a popular 11th-grade English teacher seducing his students via a tale that's a little bit funny, a little bit sad, and a little bit dirty.

Tack on a discerning collection of 1960s pop tunes featuring harps and lightly plinked glockenspiels, and you're liable to die from the studied preciousness.

Smorgasbord of insecurities

Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson star with Gene Hackman in 'The Royal Tenenbaums'

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RESOURCES Partyhopper: 'The Royal Tenenbaums' 

Those who live, however, will still find a lot to enjoy in this picture.

Gene Hackman turns in an agreeably acidic performance as, yes, Royal Tenenbaum, the scalawag father of the famous Tenenbaum overachievers. Royal and his very much estranged wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), have made a mess of their children, all of whom received the attention of an adoring public when Etheline published her memoir, "Family of Geniuses."

The Tenenbaums are a veritable smorgasbord of insecurities:

- Chas (Ben Stiller) is a jogging suit-clad financial wizard who started wheeling and dealing before he even reached puberty. His wife recently died in a plane crash, so he's obsessed with protecting his look-alike sons, Ari and Uzi (Grant Rosenmeyer and Jonah Meyerson). Of all the Tenenbaum children, Chas is the least enamored of Royal ... mainly because he still has a BB lodged between his knuckles, a souvenir of the day his father "playfully" shot him during a backyard skirmish. - Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), who was adopted by the Tenenbaums, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning play while still a child. Glum and secretive in the extreme, she's been smoking cigarettes for 22 years, although no one in her family, including her neurologist husband (Bill Murray, in an extended cameo), knows it. Margot seems bored senseless by her existence, a stance that's only accentuated by her heavy, raccoon-style eyeliner and monotone utterances.

- Richie (Luke Wilson) was a world champion tennis pro in his teens, but had a celebrated -- and hilarious -- meltdown during a nationally televised match. The only Tenenbaum child that Royal ever seemed to like, Richie (who still wears a headband, regardless of his outfit) furtively pines for Margot. His best friend, a hallucinogen-addicted writer named Eli Cash (Wilson's real-life brother, Owen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anderson) is carrying on with Margot behind his back.

Throw in Danny Glover, as Etheline's staid fiance, and you have nutcases bouncing all over the place. Anderson and Wilson seem so enamored of peculiarities, they lose track of individual motivations.

The aegis of innocence

It's never clear where the story is heading once Royal manages to re-ensconce the entire clan in their towering brownstone. He obviously wants to make up for turning their existence into a car wreck, but does little more than take advantage of them once he gets the chance. Each and every cast member has an unexpected revelation in the final reel, none of which is especially well-defined.

In a nutshell, the script doesn't work, but lots of other things do. Production designer David Wasco and cinematographer Robert Yeoman fill the cramped screen with startling reds, greens, and yellows.

And the performers consistently deliver the goods -- in those moments when there are actually goods to be delivered. Hackman and Paltrow are especially strong, in part because they have the meatiest roles.

Near the end of Anderson's first feature, "Bottle Rocket," a character bluntly declares how "innocent" he is, just in case the previous 90 minutes of childlike frivolity haven't convinced you. That kind of inappropriate directness informs every second of "The Royal Tenenbaums," and it just about wrecks the movie.

Though he's a talented filmmaker, Anderson needs to understand that truly innocent people aren't aware of their innocence, and that working so damned hard to make everyone recognize your lack of guile pretty much negates the attempt.

"The Royal Tenenbaums" isn't offensive, but it's definitely for adults. There's drug abuse, comically staged child endangerment, an inadvertently amputated finger, and a bloody suicide attempt. Think "The World According to Franny and Zooey," then lower your expectations.


• 'The Royal Tenenbaums' official site

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