The Royal Tenenbaums
dir. Wes Anderson
Opens Fri Dec 21 at the Neptune.

The great Gene Hackman has played the same hard-bitten man of power so many times in recent years that it's easy to think of him as a one-trick pony. Brilliant as he was in The French Connection, Superman, Unforgiven, and innumerable other films, nowadays you can mostly count on him to clench a cigar in his teeth and bark out lines like "Dammit, are you questioning my authority?"

Which is why it's such a joy that Gene Hackman, in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, is the picture of perfection; here his man of power has fallen on hard times, and has resolved that his greatest conquest will be to regain the love of his own embittered family. Hackman is Royal Tenenbaum, estranged patriarch of a clan of frustrated former prodigies. His three children despise him for his years of careless nonchalance. His wife, from whom he's lived apart for more than a decade without being divorced, has assiduously erected a world of defenses against him. For all these years he's shown no interest or sentimentality toward them; ensconced in a luxury hotel, infamous as an unscrupulous lawyer, he's the perfect middle-aged American bachelor who lives as though his actions will never have consequences.

Then the money runs out. Royal learns that his wife is contemplating remarriage just as he is being evicted from his hotel suite, and with slimy savvy he sets about thwarting her engagement and regaining his home, and by extension his role as Father, by play-acting the cliché of the dying man seeking redemption for his sins. Hackman nails the character of a pre-feminist American male who has learned the advantages of faking that he cares. When Royal's family discovers that his "fatal" illness is a sham and eject him with contemptuous disbelief, it is written all over Hackman's face that he thinks they're splitting hairs. So he was pretending to be sick--so what? He could have been dying. Brilliant. He then discovers that he really does want his family back and he really is contrite, but his family doesn't believe him, and we're not sure we do either.

Hackman is backed up by a tremendous supporting cast, and Wes Anderson has coaxed some surprising performances from them in the service of his larger vision--surprising because everyone but Hackman is fantastically one-dimensional. Ben Stiller is nervous and shrill as the widowed, overprotective father of twins Ari and Uzi (!) who wants to destroy his own father with scorn but only manages to be a minor irritant. Gwyneth Paltrow is unbelievably wounded as the adopted daughter who could never rise above afterthought in her father's eyes, and so sought out male love in a passionless quest worthy of the DSM-IV. Luke Wilson is shell-shocked with grief over his unrequited love for his adopted sister, which possibly destroyed his tennis career, and seethes with expressionless agony. Angelica Houston is appropriate as the still-beautiful matriarch. Danny Glover is startling and discomfiting as the careful and formal suitor who unmasks Royal and is his unhappy foil. Glover's performance swings from hysterical slapstick to one moment of totally captivating middle-aged interracial passion that clinches the plot of the film. Owen Wilson plays himself especially well. The only disappointment is the heartbreaking underuse of the brilliant Bill Murray. When he appeared in the trailer I actually stood up in the theater and cheered, but in the actual film his character is so subdued that he becomes fascinating by virtue of the opaque choice to keep him under wraps.

Finally, the sets and costumes deserve more than just special mention. It would be completely possible to write a review of The Royal Tenenbaums in which the costumes were the real stars. Wes Anderson can create a whole world that exists just slightly out of time and place, in which a purple turtleneck sweater under a rusty corduroy blazer rise above Beastie Boy mockery into an outfit of sublime beauty. The Upper West Side of the Tenenbaums is located somewhere between Park Avenue and the City of Lost Children, as much a product of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen as of Woody Allen's Manhattan.

The Royal Tenenbaums will unavoidably be compared to Anderson's Rushmore, but it is a much darker film. It has moments of real tragedy, and it is hyper-aloof. And I would happily watch it 15 times.