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The Royal Tenenbaums review

It's getting difficult to make a bad movie these days. Or rather, it's getting easier to make a bad movie look average. You know the kind of thing: state-of-the-art editing, gravity-defying camera angles, hallucinogenic digital effects, ear-splitting sound... When you're distracted, you're not thinking, and when you're not thinking, you don't always notice what a stinker you've been watching for the last 120 minutes.

The proliferation of this kind of film has led, inevitably, to a backlash - the rise of grainy, low-fi Dogme spin-offs made possible by digital video. But there is a middle ground. Less doesn't have to mean nothing at all - it can just mean, well, less.

Which is where we find Wes Anderson, one of the most talented directors in America today. Working from tightly written scripts, Anderson shoots his characters with a meticulous eye for frame, colour and detail, giving his actors a chance to do the one thing they're rarely allowed to do anymore: act. This is partly because his movies are more about people than plot - just look at his last offering, Rushmore, which simply focused on a love triangle between a precocious schoolboy, his teacher and a disillusioned millionaire.

The Royal Tenenbaums stretches the canvas wider, taking in a whole family and the complex relationships that make up their far from everyday life. And while the array of dysfunctional characters at times gives the movie a slightly bitty, disjointed feel - as does Anderson's decision to divide the action into titled chapters - it also indicates the director's desire to spread his wings.

The principal players are Chas (Ben Stiller), Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Richie (Luke Wilson) - former child prodigies who are finding it hard to cope with their adult lives. Chas, the whizzkid entrepreneur, has become paranoid since losing his wife in a plane crash, and turns up unexpectedly at his mother's (Anjelica Huston) door. He is joined by sister Margot, a depressive playwright whose marriage to an eccentric behavioural psychologist (Bill Murray) is on the rocks. Last to return is Richie, AKA The Baumer, a former world tennis champion whose budding career ended mysteriously.

This impromptu reunion is gatecrashed when their estranged father Royal (Gene Hackman) is turfed out of his digs. Faking terminal illness, he persuades his wife to take him back for his last weeks, by which time he hopes to have things sorted. Back among his family, Royal begins to see the mess he's left behind and it's his voyage of discovery that links their stories together.

And what wonderfully told stories they are. The script is rich with subtle humour and the cast deliver it with deadpan, borderline-camp élan. Behind the camera Anderson keeps things moving with a stylish simplicity that catches every glance, sigh and gesture. Proof indeed in this post-Pearl Harbor world that silence is sometimes most definitely golden.

A first-rate ensemble cast is complemented by a terrific script, subtle direction and brilliant use of music in this witty, inventive comedy.

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