It's only when Royal discovers Etheline's romance with courtly accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) and returns home, insisting he's dying, that the family comes together one more time -- if only to heap upon their father more scorn lain dormant in the 22 years since Etheline kicked Royal out of their majestic, oddball Manhattan home. Beneath the same roof again, the family conjures all its demons, not to exorcise them, but to exercise them (the Tenenbaums let nothing go, harboring old grudges like Anne Frank in the attic). Royal, broke and desperate, reveals himself as racist (he refers to Henry as a "big ol' black buck") and codger, but at least he has personality. The rest of the family members are like ghosts haunting an old house, transparent shadows awaiting their liberation from a self-made purgatory. As such, they have no real personality, especially Chas, whose revelation at film's end is sudden and inexplicable. The Tenenbaum kids are strangers -- to each other, to themselves, and, sadly, to us.
Upon leaving the film, a friend suggested, kindly, that The Royal Tenenbaumsbe seen as nothing more than a great pop song -- a three-minute smile spread over two hours. That observation is no real surprise: As in Rushmore, Anderson loads his soundtrack with choice nuggets by Nick Drake, the Rolling Stones, Nico, and (finally) two selections from the Charlie Brown Christmasspecial, which he's wanted to use since Bottle Rocket. (Unfortunately, the soundtrack this time around feels too pat, easy shorthand intended to fill in the copious blanks.) You do want to cheer its ambitions, because The Royal Tenenbaumspossesses moments of sheer delight and surprise -- Owen Wilson's performance, for instance, or the flashback to Margot's discovery of her real parents in Indiana. But as a movie, it's little more than a remarkable New Yorkershort story -- easy to pick up, easy to put down.