AT A TIME OF DUMB AND DUMBER HOLLYWOOD FARE, Wes Anderson is making comedy smart again. The 32-year-old Houston native has made arguably the funniest movie of 2001, though he seems unsure just what to call The Royal Tenenbaums’ mix of deadpan wit and melancholy longing. “I usually call it a comedy, but that’s because I don’t know what else to call it, really,” Anderson says. The film, which touches upon such knee-slapping subjects as despair, loss, and mortality, owes its humor to his knack for finding laughs in unlikely places. “ The Last Picture Show is basically a comedy until about halfway through it, I think, because there’s all this stuff about how terrible the town’s football team is,” he says. “Even Taxi Driver, which is incredibly dark, has very funny moments.”
Anderson’s off-kilter sense of humor shaped his 1996 debut, Bottle Rocket, about a pair of bumbling would-be thieves, and the 1998 sleeper hit Rushmore, about a precocious schoolboy who falls for his teacher. Both films were bittersweet comedies that won him a loyal following. The Royal Tenenbaums, with its $25 million budget and all-star cast—which includes not only funny men Bill Murray and Ben Stiller but also such heavies as Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, and Gwyneth Paltrow—is his most ambitious film yet and is scheduled to go head-to-head with other high-profile Christmas releases. Hackman plays patriarch Royal Tenenbaum, a down-on-his-luck disbarred lawyer who tells his estranged wife (Huston) and family that he wants to make amends since he has six weeks to live. His children, once prodigies, have grown up to be eccentric failures: There is Chas, the former financial whiz who is fanatical about his sons’ safety; Margot, the once-acclaimed playwright who suffers from writer’s block; and Richie, the champion tennis star whose meltdown on the court has caused him to roam the world on an ocean liner, still wearing his tennis whites and headband. The film is populated by characters like Raleigh St. Clair, a neurologist who conducts strange but harmless experiments on his patients, and Pagoda, an old Indian man who wears hot pink trousers and once worked as a trained assassin in Calcutta.
As with his two other films, Anderson co-wrote The Royal Tenenbaums with actor Owen Wilson, whom he met in 1989 in a playwriting class at the University of Texas at Austin. Both were the well-educated middle sons of creative families—Wes went to St. John’s in Houston, Owen to St. Mark’s in Dallas—who shared an absurdist vision and a love of film. Hollywood took notice of Bottle Rocket, which launched Wilson’s acting career and that of his co-star and brother, Luke. (Owen was recently in Zoolander and Meet the Parents, Luke in Legally Blonde.) The Royal Tenenbaums is a family affair too: Luke plays Richie, and his brother Andrew has a cameo as an ax-wielding Amish farmer. Their mother, Dallas photographer Laura