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'Royal Tenenbaums' is brilliant success

Hackman heads an all-star cast in quirky, appealing comedy

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS —**** — Gene Hackman, Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, Bill Murray, and featuring the voice of Alec Baldwin; rated R (profanity, violence, drugs, brief sex, vulgarity, brief nudity, brief gore, racial epithets); Century Theatres 16; Megaplex 12 at the Gateway; Megaplex 17 at Jordan Commons.

We may have to come up with new superlatives to describe all future works of oddball filmmaker Wes Anderson. After all, with his first two films, Anderson managed to subvert two common film genres — the crime caper comedy (with 1996's sleeper success "Bottle Rocket") and the angst-ridden teen comedy (with 1998's even more adored "Rushmore").

And with each film, Anderson has become more confident, and the quality of his storytelling has grown incrementally. The culmination of Anderson's skills — to date, at least — is his third feature, "The Royal Tenenbaums," a comedy that is more difficult and more challenging than it initially appears to be.

Anderson skillfully dissects the idea of the New York intellectual bourgeoisie and examines the growing void between families. If that isn't enough, the film also pays homage to several well-known pieces of literature and cinema, including "The Magnificent Ambersons."

Nearly all the characters in "The Royal Tenenbaums" are brilliant failures, including the patriarch, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), who was once wealthy, but who is now broke and estranged from his loved ones.

Royal believes he can do something about one of those problems — though he chooses a weasly way of doing it. With help from a family servant (Anderson regular Kumar Pallana), Royal pretends to be dying so he can move in with his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston).

Coincidentally, this occurs at the same time that their three children — former tennis pro Richie (Luke Wilson), real-estate magnate Chas (Ben Stiller) and playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) — have chosen to return home as well.

As you might guess, few of them are thrilled to see Royal — especially Chas, who blames his father for nearly all of his problems. Also, Royal's return threatens to jeopardize Etheline's romance with her accountant, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover).

This synopsis is a bit more straightforward than the film actually is. In keeping with Anderson's usual practice, there are several story digressions that help deepen the material — such as introduction of Eli Cash (Owen Wilson, who co-wrote the film), a family friend who desperately longs to be a Tenenbaum.

All of the performances are solid, especially Hackman, who's given the difficult task of making his fairly repellent character as appealing as possible. And as the members of his family, the supporting cast is excellent as well. (Huston's performance is the warmest, most appealing she has given in a long, long time.)

Also, this is a film that demands repeat viewings just to catch everything — such as the priceless sight gag involving some bizarre paintings on Eli's apartment walls, the subplot involving Margot's psychiatrist husband (a bearded Bill Murray) and the many references to "Peanuts."

"The Royal Tenenbaums" is rated R for occasional use of strong profanity, violence (pranks, a brawl and automotive mayhem), drug content (prescription fraud and some usage), brief sexual content, some crude sexual humor, brief female nudity, brief gore and scattered use of racial epithets. Running time: 108 minutes.