Though it's choked with dead bodies and disappointments, The Royal Tenenbaums comes before you with a smile. It wants you to know it's a whimsical film: the kind of story you might check out of the young-adult section of the library, where the books have funny line drawings at the chapter heads. An unseen narrator speaks, in tones that remind you of afternoons spent tucked into an armchair, and the characters pop up on the screen, as if called from the pages of some latter-day E.B. White. Here is the family of eccentrics; and here is their big, comfortable house–limestone and turrets outside, dark wood and burgundy walls within–set on a cozy New York cul-de-sac. Everything's a little too charming: from the pet mice that skitter through the frames to the straight-on, photo-album views of the characters, who are shown complete with captions. At this early point, of course, you haven't begun counting the casualties.
Even within the opening moments, though, you might guess that the pink icing has been layered onto a brick. "Is it our fault?" ask three children, when their father informs them he's moving out. No, replies Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), speaking from the very far end of a dining-room table. Then, with a candor that's as absurd as the table's utter bareness, he adds, "Of course, your mother and I made some sacrifices to have you."
What could fill such a paternal void? Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Huston) pumps it full of ambition. Her children must all become geniuses; and so, with a briskness that's well summed up by the pencil she keeps stuck in her hair, she programs the kids until they're famous for their success. The effect, again, is only too charming: In quick succession, you see little Chas standing at his desk, running a business empire; little Margot typing away at award-winning plays; little Richie stringing his tennis racket, on the way to the pros at the age of 8. You may smile to see these half-size people behaving like grown-ups; but in that corner of your mind reserved for unease, you may also wonder whose fantasies they're living out. Their father (that good-for-nothing) chases after big money, bright lights and the sporting life; and so the children turn themselves into whatever he desires in the big city of Gotham.
Not that anyone in the movie uses that name; but what else can you call this place, where a man can live on credit at the Lindbergh Palace Hotel? The Royal Tenenbaums is set in the romantically dowdy city of John O'Hara's stories and Charles Foster Kane's side-street love nest: a New York that, despite being imaginary, has drawn so many millions of real people. It's here that the movie actually begins, twenty-two years after the parents' separation, when a broke and aging Royal is evicted from the hotel, and the child prodigies come face to face with the futilities of impending middle age.
Through a combination of lies and sexual longings that I needn't detail, everyone moves back into the old family house, which still flies a ragged pennant emblazoned with a T. Royal apparently means to reclaim this flagship property, and Etheline with it–goals that can best be achieved, he thinks, if he claims to be dying. Never mind the illogic. (It will reach its height later, in the woozy report of another character: "I wrote a suicide note as soon as I regained consciousness.") The main point is, Royal takes everyone on a visit to the cemetery, during which sequence each of his offspring unearths a buried injury. We're reminded in quick succession of how Chas (Ben Stiller) wound up with a BB pellet lodged in his flesh, as a permanent grievance against Royal; how Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) lost a finger of her right hand, in yet another incident that can be blamed on the father; how Richie (Luke Wilson) played his final, disastrous tennis match, on an afternoon when disillusionment led him to make seventy-two unforced errors. Unlike his siblings, Richie hasn't bled yet; but he knows how treacherous, how funereal, love can be. It's a lesson he shares with Etheline's new suitor, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), who by this point in the film has proposed marriage and fallen into an open grave.