Just about everything is a little off-kilter in this quirky story about a wildly dysfunctional family.
A prologue tells us that Royal (Gene Hackman) and Etheline (Anjelica Houston) had three children, all of whom were so prodigiously accomplished while still in grade school that they were the subject of books, including one by their mother.
It seems that they lived their lives backward, though. As children, they easily surpassed adults with their astonishing achievements in the arts (Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) was a playwright), sports (Richie (Luke Wilson) was a tennis champion), and business (Chas (Ben Stiller) was a financial wizard). But as adults, they have reverted to childhood, and either can’t or won’t perform anymore. One by one, they return home, moving into their old bedrooms. And then Royal, long estranged from the family, tells Etheline that he, too, wants to come home, to make his peace with the family before he dies of cancer.
The result is a crackpot blending of J.D. Salinger’s stories about the gifted Glass children, the classic Kaufmann-Hart play “You Can’t Take it With You,” and a made-for-TV movie called “The Gathering,” in which a tough old rich guy played by Ed Asner visits his long-estranged but never- divorced wife, played by Maureen Stapleton, and asks her to persuade their grown children to come together for Christmas.
But this is very far from the glossy but conventional “Gathering.” It takes place in a whacked-out fantasy version of New York City, where hotels employ uniformed elevator operators, decrepit taxis literally labeled “Gypsy Cab” show up whenever someone needs to go somewhere and there is a YMCA on “375th Street.” The production design is brilliant, especially the house (the children’s bedrooms are magnificent) and the hotel.
Director Wes Anderson and actor Owen Wilson (who plays the Tenenbaum’s neighbor, Eli) wrote the screenplay, and like their previous collaborations, “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore,” this movie defies categorization, combining elements of satire, fantasy, comedy, tragedy, farce, and drama. That’s a combination that will make some audiences uncomfortable, but will seem to others to be the best possible way – maybe the only possible way — to truly convey a story of family conflict. The result is messy, even outrageous, but reflecting a singularity of vision that is welcome in a mainstream studio film starring three Oscar-winners.
Families should know that the movie has very mature material including a graphic and bloody suicide attempt, sexual references and situations (brief nudity, brief shot of gay embrace, adultery and a possible romance between adopted siblings) and painful issues of betrayal and deception. There are references to a tragic death. An adopted child is made to feel like an outsider. A character has a serious drug abuse problem. Some people may find the light-hearted treatment of these issues offensive.
Families who see this movie should talk about whether its wild exaggeration of family communication problems can be of help to families who are struggling to connect to each other. What can parents do to give gifted children the stimulation and support they need without making them feel isolated from friends and family? Eli says to Royal “I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum,” and Royal responds, “So did I.” What does that mean? Why did such accomplished children become such fragile adults? Why did Chas react to his wife’s death by becoming obsessed with safety?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Rushmore.” Every family should see the Best Picture Oscar-winning “You Can’t Take it With You,” starring Jimmy Stewart.