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Jordan Hiller on Film

The Royal Tenenbaums

Do not be fooled. Just because a movie is about geniuses does not mean it was made by the same. The writing team of Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson has become the offbeat darling of cinema after their first two features (neither successful financially) - one, the little known Bottle Rocket and the other, Rushmore. In the tradition of Good Will Hunting, written by those two smiley guys, we find young writers vying to be seen as great intellects by creating characters who possess fantastic minds. It is truly a great trick. If I, Jordan B. Smart (My rap name - I'd like to give a shout out to The Kemists), use my calculator and come up with the square root of 9,642 and then have my character, Zogan Mastergill age 9, spit out the number at the drop of a hat in the movie - some of those smarts project onto me as the auteur. Anderson and Wilson are suckers for depictions of the young, precocious, enigmatic, nerdy prodigy - probably because that is how they view themselves (poor guys). Rushmore was entirely based on the tribulations of such a young man and The Royal Tenenbaums spins it into a family affair but with the focus shifting within, to the relationships between family members.

Maybe Anderson is a young, precocious, enigmatic, nerdy prodigy and he is being true to his form, but Owen Wilson (Armageddon, Behind Enemy Lines) sure seems like a pretty boy surfer - but (honestly) that could just be the roles he takes. Maybe Anderson writes all the sophisticated dialogue while Wilson adds the sexual innuendo, pop culture pizzazz, and suggests "cool" or "gnarly" songs to add to the soundtrack. Owen Wilson, mind you, is a perfectly good actor and adds a unique comic elegance and sincerity to his
performances as he does again here.

Broken down to its barest soul, The Royal Tenenbaums is about the dynamics of family - the genius bit is a diversion. The film is about an unfeeling father (Gene Hackman showing his range) attempting to reconnect with his wife (Angelica Huston) and their three kids (Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwenyth Paltrow as the adopted daughter). The family relationships are complex, with heavy themes including rebuilding
after the loss of a loved one and forbidden passion. The interplay between the actors on these fronts succeed, mainly because of the superior ensemble. Who knows what movie this would have been if it were directed by a more mainstream director (Penny Marshall comes to mind). It would certainly have been less hip and quirky and flamboyant, but it would probably have been more affective in conveying the raw elements of what is essentially a depressing motion picture.

You probably think I missed the boat. You will tell me the movie is primarily a comedy with some dramatic undertones. The laughs are the ikar and any emotional connection is tafel. But if anyone thinks the movie was written and intended as a pure comedy then Anderson and Wilson have surely stumbled. Think about the "laughs". Ben Stiller's lunatic parenting, Danny Glover's clumsy sheepishness, Gene Hackman's charade. Search deeper - beyond what amuses you and see if you can feel for the character and what motivates them - this is where the "genius" of the movie may lie. Do you see a man having a rough go at raising his two sons alone, an older gentleman trying to ease his way into an uncomfortable situation in order to take one last shot at romantic happiness, a terrible father and person living his final years rejected from any security and companionship? I haven't even mentioned the chuckles emanating from the emotionally terrified Luke Wilson, his best friend the cowardly drug addict, or quiet Bill Murray's broken heart.

The Royal Tenenbaums is mostly about sadness and yet many viewers go away thinking they saw a comedy with occasional "serious" moments or perhaps they feel cheated that there weren't enough jokes. The reason we think this way stems from Anderson and Wilson's knack for sugar coating pain in their movies. They want us to swallow gripping issues without that bitter taste. Their hope is that the medicine (appreciation for the human condition) will enter our system without our realizing that our bodies (and minds) want to reject such a confrontation.

This is why we get afros and matching jumpsuits. The cowboy attire, dalmatian mice, and tumbling priests. Go down the list of characters and you will discover misery and turmoil at every turn - though it will be expressed in a way that puts a smile on our faces. From the wacky breakdown on the tennis court to the multiple partners in Gwenyth Paltrow's past. Accomplishing a perfect blending of the two - laughs and audience awareness of their disturbing source - would be quite a remarkable feet and A&W get there a significant number of times. It would be wrong to say that Tenenbaums is not a fine work with a dream cast at their best and therefore the movie comes recommended, but with a warning. Go to experience the rich, intoxicating city flavor or to watch some great actors do their thing. Don't go in giddy and all but ignore what you are snickering at. Finally, don't be prodded into thinking the movie must be brilliant just because the characters within are allegedly smarter than you are. Although you'd probably be wrong dumb ass.

PS - Leave it to guys named Anderson and Wilson to make a movie called The Royal Tenenbaums, have characters named Uzi and Ari, with Ben Stiller who is practically a Rav, and not make one decent reference to Judaism and/or Deli Kasbah.

Reviews by Jordan Hiller

Trembling Before G-d


Veronica Guerin

Pieces of April


Bubba Ho-tep

Casa De Los Babys


American Splendor


The Holy Land

Return from India

The Shape of Things

City of Ghosts

Anger Management


The Guys

Assassination Tango

Gaudi Afternoon


Nowhere in Africa

Foreign Sister



L’chayim, Comrade Stalin
part 1

part 2


Divine Intervention

The Pianist

Best films of 2002 1992

8 mile

Punch Drunk Love


Gaza Strip

The Kid Stays in the Picture


Minority Report



Spring Movie Preview 2002

Panic Room

The Oscar Preview 2002

Royal Tenenbaums

Harry Potter

The Man who Wasn't There

From Hell

Training Day

Hearts in Atlantis

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back

the others

Planet of the apes

Jurassic Park III


Shrek & Atlantis

The Mummy Returns

Enemy At the Gates


Exit Wounds

15 Minutes

You Can Count on Me

The Mexican

Down to Earth

Meet the Parents

Golda's Balcony HERE

Tribeca FIlm Festival 2003

Daily Coverage: HERE

Photo Gallery HERE

Film Reviews:

A Breach in the Wall

Every Child is Born a Poet: The Life and Work of Piri Thomas

Paper Chasers

Resisting Paradise

MC5: A True Testimonial

Sweet Sixteen

The Shape of Things

Yossi and Jagger

Persona Non Grata

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