On the surface, there is nothing realistic about "The Royal Tenenbaums." Everyone in it is some kind of misunderstood genius, riddled with bizarre personality quirks and existing in an inscrutable time period, a "present day" where people routinely use rotary phones and dress like it's 1975. Underneath the deliberate comic strangeness, however, there's a warmth and honesty that make these people more genuine than the inhabitants of most serious dramas.
Based on an original screenplay by director Wes Anderson and co-star Owen Wilson (who also collaborated on "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore"), "The Royal Tenenbaums" is structured as if it were adapted from a novel, with a narrator (Alec Baldwin) introducing each "chapter" and providing droll, omniscient commentary on the proceedings. Royal (Gene Hackman) is the titular patriarch, a self-involved con artist who abandoned his family years ago. His wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), devoted herself to the education of the couple's three children, all of them whiz kids who flamed out before they hit 30.
Chas (Ben Stiller) is a financial genius who successfully sued his father for stealing from him when he was a teen-ager. Now a widower, he has turned into a panicky control freak who subjects his young sons to late-night disaster drills. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) was adopted (something Royal never lets her forget) and became a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Glum and secretive, she is now married to a much older man (Bill Murray) and spends most of her time hiding out in the bathroom. Richie (Luke Wilson) was a tennis pro whose on-court meltdown ended his career, and who then took to wandering aimlessly, slowly coming to the conclusion that he is in love with his own sister.
Through various plot twists, all the children end up back in the clan's cozy New York home, just as Royal arrives with the announcement that he's dying of cancer and wants to reconcile. Chas is openly hostile, while Margot and Etheline are wary but accepting. Richie is the only one who wants Royal back, and he insists on pulling the others into the scheme. Of course, Royal isn't really sick he just wants a free place to live after getting evicted from his ritzy hotel suite but as the story progresses, he finds himself having twinges of real feeling and even conscience.
This apparent change of heart is the emotional linchpin of the movie, and it has to be completely believable or everything else falls apart. Very few actors could make Royal into anything except a vile jerk, but Hackman has an uncanny ability to make any character likable. Royal may be largely worthless as a husband and father, but there is something charming about his complete lack of scruples. When he decides it's really time to make amends, he does so with the kind of thoughtless tenacity he brought to his con game, and it's actually possible to feel sorry for him as his own selfishness acts as a stumbling block for his newfound good intentions. Royal has to earn his way back into his family, and in the process, he earns the audience's affection, too.
This isn't just Hackman's film, however. In fact, the entire ensemble (which also includes Danny Glover and Anderson regular Kumar Pallana) is even greater than the sum of its parts, which is saying a lot, considering the parts. The way the group clicks as a whole is a testament to the acting ability (rather than pure star power) of these individuals, who are each able to stand out without overwhelming anyone else. Huston is particularly appealing in a role that brings out the no-nonsense intelligence behind her regal bearing, and she provides a great counterpoint to Hackman's looser performance.
"The Royal Tenenbaums" gets a little too precious for its own good sometimes, adding forced weirdness to a story that doesn't need any help in that department. (Stiller's identically dressed children are inexplicably named Ari and Uzi; Paltrow is saddled with a missing finger for a nonsensical reason.)
At its best, however, it allows viewers to laugh at the foibles of these off-the-wall characters while still learning to love them. Just like in a real family.