Charming dysfunction in The Royal Tenenbaums; off the deep end in Vanilla Sky.

Let's get the inevitable comparisons out of the way first: The Royal Tenenbaums, the third film from wunderkind director Wes Anderson, is not nearly as great as his second film, Rushmore. Startlingly original, dizzyingly funny, and utterly heartbreaking, Rushmore was a miracle movie Anderson's not likely to top. But fans of that film (as well as Anderson's singularly charming debut, Bottle Rocket) aren't likely to be disappointed by The Royal Tenenbaums: It covers many of the same themes with the same unique visual style, zingy wordplay, inspired casting, and warmly humanistic worldview.

An adaptation of an epic and entirely fictional family novel that is checked out from a public library at the beginning of the film (imagine Orson Welles' film of Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons as rewritten for the screen by J.D. Salinger, replete with gather-round-the-fireplace narration), The Royal Tenenbaums concerns a family of one-time geniuses -- estranged litigator father Royal (Gene Hackman), archaeologist mother Etheline (Anjelica Huston), and their three child-prodigy offspring, financial wiz Chas (Ben Stiller), tennis champion Richie (Luke Wilson), and adopted playwright daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) -- reuniting after "two decades of betrayal, failure, and disaster."

The film is droll where Rushmore was manic, and though the plot is motored by the same melancholy sense of loss, the emotions don't run quite as deep as during Rushmore's countless quiet epiphanies. The film's soaring opening montage sets the tone, as Paul McCartney's eternal hymn to reconciliation, "Hey Jude" (this time in the hands of Elliot Smith), plays over a litany of advances and disappointments.

Etheline receives a marriage proposal from her accountant, the gentle, dignified Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), which sets the reunion of the Tenenbaums in motion. This development triggers desperation in Royal, who fakes a terminal illness in order to move back into the family home. Simultaneously, the Tenenbaum children return home in the order of their birth, with the intense Chas and his two young sons (Ari and Uzi) first, followed by the withdrawn Margot (her childishly appropriate reaction to hearing that Chas has moved home: "Why does he get to do that?") and the self-exiled Richie. Each returning Tenenbaum is haunted by a regret or sense of loss that lends the reunion poignancy: Chas is repressing sorrow for his recently deceased wife, Margot has never come to grips with her status as an adopted child, Richie is plagued by his not exactly platonic infatuation with Margot, and Royal is tortured by his sense of having lived a wasted life.

Visually, The Royal Tenenbaums is even more precisely framed and its mise-en-scène even more tableau-like than Rushmore. The look of Anderson's work has been favorably compared to the Sunday comics (and Rushmore reminded me more of Bloom County than anything else), its storybook feel heightened by the lovingly detailed art direction and visual design. One of the magnificent charms of Rushmore was how much information -- narrative and emotional -- was imparted by the film's background bric-a-brac and how that information was left for the viewer to discover rather than focused on through close-ups or other showy camera-work. The Royal Tenenbaums is no different. The film's nostalgic yearning for childhood is communicated by the family's closet full of worn board games, seen in the background as two characters argue. In fact, all of the artifacts that surround the Tenenbaum siblings -- as well as much of their physical accoutrements -- seem permanently frozen in the moments of their initial decline.

And if Anderson's ability to use the full scope of his frame to impart visual information is as "preternatural" as the childhood Chas' understanding of international finance, his way with sound is no less assured. In an era when pop songs are lazily plastered over visual montages to cheaply provoke emotions or fill time, Anderson stands out for his brilliantly careful use of pop music. Sometimes it's simple: Margot and Richie's painfully slo-mo reunion to the tune of Nico's "These Days" or Richie setting his pet falcon free toward the end as the Velvet Underground's "Stephanie Says" plays in the background. Other times, the use of pop music is triumphantly showy: a visual dossier of Margot's romantic indiscretions driven by the Ramones' "Judy Is a Punk" or, best of all, Hackman's deliriously entertaining kidnapping of Uzi and Ari for a day of boys-will-be-boys fun to Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard." (Royal asks if their dad lets them have any fun, and when the kids make some reply about karate lessons, Royal responds, "I'm not talking about dance lessons, I'm talking about putting a brick through the other guy's window.")

Anderson's ensemble cast is fantastic, and he employs many of the same actors from his previous films in bit parts (John Cassavetes veteran Seymour Cassel, who played Bert Fisher in Rushmore, again impersonates a surgeon, except this time of his own accord). But this is Hackman's show, and he's almost as extraordinary here as Bill Murray was in Rushmore. His Royal Tenenbaum is a scoundrel who hides his discomfort through gruff machoisms. (Upon meeting his motherless grandchildren for the first time, he says, "I'm sorry for your loss. Your mother was a terribly attractive woman.") Late in the film, romantic rival Sherman says to him, "I don't think you're an asshole, I just think you're a son of a bitch," and that about sums it up. But it is Royal who is actually the film's most acute character. While everyone else is consumed with their private agonies, Royal sees his family clearly, his insight revealed periodically throughout the film. When Chas returns home, Etheline seems caring but confused; Royal cuts through the decorum: "I think you're having a breakdown. I don't think you've recovered from [his wife] Rachel's death." And in the film's most offhandedly moving moment, he says to Etheline, "I want to thank you for raising our children."

With The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson may not have matched masterpiece with masterpiece, but he has confirmed himself as one of the most compelling and original filmmakers in America today. This kind of visionary mixture of deep kindness and inspired lunacy, of slapstick timing and emotional delicacy, hasn't been a regular feature of Hollywood comedy since the days of Lubitsch and Sturges. It's a cause to rejoice. -- Chris Herrington

Opening on January 11th.

Every movie should have a good howl. Think A Streetcar Named Desire's "Stella!" Or, if you will, Jerry Maguire's "Show me the money." Tom Cruise and director Cameron Crowe, both of the latter film, have reunited for Vanilla Sky, and it, too, has a cry: "Tech support!"

That you may want to scream after viewing this film was clearly an aim of the filmmaker. In one scene, Cruise, who plays incredibly favored publisher David Aames, describes a Monet painting with its "vanilla sky." And like a Monet painting, up close this film appears to be nothing but a mess of dots. With distance, it becomes about image and reality, the meaning of happiness and consequences.

Tech support!

How odd and admirable then that Crowe, so known for his sweet films such as Say Anything, Almost Famous, and, of course, Jerry Maguire, should make Vanilla Sky, a decidedly different film with Stanley Kubrick pretensions and the casing of a Dallas episode (though it is, roughly, still sweet).

The plot revolves around David. He's being charged with murder. But before, he was a man who was given everything and knew how to enjoy it. In flashback he remembers his best friend Brian (Jason Lee) counseling him that the sweet is that much sweeter after experiencing the bitter. But why go through that bitter nonsense when there is money to be spent and girls to get busy with? And so David dabbles with superfox Julie (Cameron Diaz) and then doesn't invite her to his birthday party. She shows anyway, as does the beguiling Sophia (Penélope Cruz). David blows off Julie to spend a chaste, blissful evening with Sophia that sets them both firmly at the starting point of love.

As David exits Sophia's apartment, Julie shows up. She begs for his attention, and he gets into her car, and then she drives the car off a bridge. She winds up dead; he winds up disfigured, confused, and alone. Then, like magic, David gets Sophia back, along with his pre-accident face. But what about the murder? Who did he kill? Did he do it?

The answers are shot out, and Vanilla Sky suddenly appears to be deep where it was particularly artificial. That's all part of the plan, and it works to a degree. But the kicker isn't mixed up in the body of the film to offer tantalizing details. It's tacked on as splendidly composed Post-it note. -- Susan Ellis

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