Picks and Pans Review: The Royal Tenenbaums

updated 12/17/2001 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/2001 AT 01:00 AM EST

Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover

After years of avoiding his family, Royal Tenenbaum (Hackman) one day approaches Etheline (Huston), his long-estranged wife, on a street in New York City to try to patch things up. "I want my family back,' he tells her.

"Well, you can't have it," she answers. "It's too late."

The Royal Tenenbaums, an appealingly quirky comedy about an unhappy clan of eccentric geniuses, shows that it's never too late for families to forgive, if not forget. Etheline, an archaeologist, and the three grown Tenenbaum children (Stiller, Luke Wilson and Paltrow) have ample cause to resent Royal, a onetime successful litigator trying to worm his way back into their good graces. He was never much of a husband and even less of a father. His kids, despite being childhood prodigies (Chas as a financial whiz, Richie as a tennis ace and Margot as a precocious playwright), are, as adults, emotionally lost, perpetually morose and barely hanging in there.

Tenenbaums clearly derives its inspiration from You Can't Take It with You, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1936 stage comedy about the wacky Sycamore household, and J.D. Salinger's short stories and novellas, including 1955's Franny and Zooey, about the preternaturally talented, but troubled, Glass family. It falls between the two, neither as sunny as the first nor as dark as the second. Director Wes Anderson, who cowrote Tenenbaums with actor Owen Wilson (Behind Enemy Lines), his partner on Bottle Rocket (1996) and the playful Rushmore (1998), has made a likable film demonstrating a distinctive, whimsical voice, but one that falls off in its second half, running low on pep and purpose.

The acting, though, is a nonstop delight. Hackman excels as a charming rogue who never fully reforms. Huston, the movie's moral center, again shows herself to be among our most talented (and underused) actresses. Of the Tenenbaum progeny, Paltrow (see page 71) gives the most nuanced performance, and there's deft work by Bill Murray, Glover and Owen Wilson in supporting roles. (R)

Bottom Line: Royal flush

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