I saw The Royal Tenenbaums today and halfway through the movie I was ready to come home and tell the E2 crowds: don't bother, this isn't it. I was 100% ready to damn this movie with faint praise -- the movie is stylish, pretty, has a fine cast... but in a marked contrast to Rushmore, it never gives us the space to breathe and reflect and decide if we care about the characters. It's packed with slapstick and character-based comedy and while Ben Stiller is sure funny with his gruff father-hating, after 45 minutes of playing the character (as well as all the other characters) for a whole lot of small laughs I was ready to admit that the movie had lost its humor because I just didn't care anymore if Gene Hackman was a dumb racist, or if Luke Wilson was still wearing his tennis headband. There is only so long we can laugh at a stranger before we either get to know them, and laugh at them as a friend or and enemy, or forget them and laugh at something else.

Then something serious happened, and I watched the rest of the movie, and connected, and I remembered why Rushmore was so damn good.

This movie has a lot of strong characters, which may be responsible for the problems I had with it. It's a good mix of actors who have already established a warm space in director Wes Anderson's world (Owen and Luke Wilson, Bill Murray, the charming Kumar Pallana) and well established, talented Hollywood actors (Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Danny Glover... and Angelica Houston is especially good through the whole film, though she stands apart from the slapstick and silliness somewhat). The recycling of actors reminds me of Hal Hartley's films, as well as the music community of my hometown, and gives the movie a homemade feel, like all these actors are here because they want to be, and working with each other is a real pleasure. Which it should be.

The visual style and design, as well as the music score, are refinements of the style seen in Rushmore -- the same 1960's influenced look that is clearly working to try to step outside of any particular time. The soundtrack features the Beatles, Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, Elliott Smith, the Rolling Stones, the Clash, Van Morrison, the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, and Nico (whew!), and does a good job of not beating you around the head with its musical taste. Additional scoring by Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo fame) adds pleasant touches. Visual textual layovers and voiceovers (tastefully done by Alec Baldwin, which puzzles me for a reason I can't quite put my finger on), inserted into "chapter" cuts, give the film a storytelling narrative which tell us that it is okay to relate emotionally to the characters despite the fact that they live in a bizzare, fairytale world of New York wealth -- compare here to John Hughes and his wealthy teen angst movies of the mid-1980's.

But the key element of Anderson and Owen Wilson's writing for these films that ties them together, in my mind at least, as films that matter, is not their stylishness, or their funny character quirks and minor slapstick, but their ability to write dialogue about interpersonal relationships that is embarassing and petty in the real way that real people are embarassing and petty. When these characters attempt to be suavely mean and cutting, they may well find their mark, and there is a good chance that feelings will be hurt. But just like in real life, they rarely come away with a sense of having said just the right thing. They don't strut off; these characters are too busy trying to wrench feet from mouths. They are forced to confront the fact that hurting other people rarely makes us hurt less. And the right balance of stupid refusal to admit to being wrong and gradual emotional growth is struck here, as in Rushmore, for us to stick with these characters, without dismissing them for being too mean or resolving their conflicts too easily.

This movie is, overall, much lighter than its predecessor. And some may find the ultimate resolution of the film to be a little too pat, a bit too Hollywood; or they may find that the connection to the characters which didn't strike me until the second half of the film never comes at all. But it is my opinion that moviegoers who can appreciate that balance between the depressing end of the art-house spectrum and the trite end of the Hollywood spectrum will find this an entertaining and engaging film.

This movie reminded me of a number of other movies in tone or style, or whatnot, and only Rushmore made it into the actual review. Harold and Maude is an obvious stylistic comparison, and I imagine a great source of inspiration for all of Wes Anderson's work. Ghost World has similar emotional-attachment-through-embarassment motifs. Amelie uses a similar trick of narrative structure creating a space where we can accept the characters despite their somewhat unreal settings. All of these are fine movies.