by Ed Symkus

Those of us who have been waiting like excitable kids for the next installment of Star Wars will have to keep on waiting till May 16. But those of us who need a little more from our movie-going experience, who have been waiting like hungry dogs for another film from director Wes Anderson (who last gave us the wonderfully odd Rushmore in 1998) have reason to celebrate. His newest, The Royal Tenenbaums, more than lives up to expectations. It exceeds them.

Most critics were hard pressed to label Rushmore a full-blown comedy, since, even though it was funny, it had so many touches of sadness to it. This time, Anderson and co-screenwriter Owen Wilson (who also co-wrote Rushmore with him) have pushed their own envelope. Tenenbaums, too, is a comedy, and it has its share of very funny moments, even dipping into slapstick pratfalls a couple of times. But its story centers on some big-time family dysfunction, and right next to the offbeat comic business, there's an upfront sense of tragedy, an air of melancholy, a bittersweet flavor.

The Tenenbaums were never a normal family. Money wasn't a problem; there was plenty of that. Yet possibly due to the overblown precociousness of the three children -- Chas (Ben Stiller) and Richie (Luke Wilson) are brothers; Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is adopted -- mom and dad (Anjelica Huston and Gene Hackman) were never able to get very close to them. At ridiculously young ages, they become an entrepreneur, a playwright, a tennis pro. And mom and dad drift apart, so far apart that dad is instructed to leave, after which he completely loses touch with his family. So already, right at the beginning, there's a hint that this isn't going to be just a laugh-fest.

But don't think it's all dramatic. It's anything but. The script and the direction are positively quirky, Hackman turns in a rollicking performance, and parts of it -- look for a long scene with Hackman trying to teach his overly polite, well-trained grandsons, Ari and Uzi, to misbehave -- are laugh-out-loud.

Presented in book form, complete with chapters, the film is ostensibly about Hackman's nasty, conniving, deceitful character, Royal Tenenbaum, trying to get back into his family's good graces many years after leaving. His reasons are twofold: He's out of money, and he's caught wind of the rumor that his ex-wife (actually, they're separated but not divorced) is thinking of marrying her black accountant Henry (Danny Glover).

With that last part making room for a few inventive racist shots, the film soon launches into various explorations of loneliness, depression, jealousy, drug abuse and disease. Margot suddenly moves back home, leaving her husband, Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray, looking very much like Edward Gorey), in the lurch. All three of the Tenenbaum kids are either clinically depressed or, at the very least, having a tough go in life. There is the usual romantic drama where someone loves someone else who, unfortunately, loves someone else. Family pal Eli (Owen Wilson) is a hophead. And dad is faking a fatal illness in order to gain some sympathy.

So while all of this is quite a bit darker than Rushmore (which in turn was darker than the first Anderson-Wilson collaboration, Bottle Rocket), one thing that remains constant in all three films is Anderson's predilection for very specialized original music. The music is most often that of Mark Mothersbaugh, who fills these films with happy, busy, tinkling sounds, which Anderson then complements with an eclectic choice of pop tunes. In this case, there's some Van Morrison, Nick Drake, Ramones, Dylan (an exquisite instrumental of "Billy," previously only heard on the soundtrack of the Sam Peckinpah film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), and the Stones (in the nitpicking department, anyone who owns a copy of Between the Buttons knows that "Ruby Tuesday" comes before "She Smiled Sweetly." So why did the filmmakers reverse the order as the album plays onscreen?)

But in a movie so jam-packed with misery and laughs, where spotted mice are a major motif, where Gypsy cab drivers work for the Gypsy Cab company, where Gwyneth Paltrow allowed the makeup department to completely downplay her looks, and where the voice of Alec Baldwin keeps coming back to add some narration -- one cannot complain about messing with the order of songs on an album from 1967.

In the end, all issues are resolved, and a tear or two may be shed. This is a slightly twisted, almost surreal, quite possibly brilliant film.

'Til Death Do We Part @ Crime Scene Entertainment

Sat., Feb. 11, 6-9 p.m.
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