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 Wilson, took the photos that appear on these pages. Few characters better capture Wes and Owen’s dry humor than the film’s Stetson-wearing Eli Cash, a city boy who sports a fringed buckskin jacket and fancies himself to be the next Cormac McCarthy. Played by Owen, he ambles around his hometown of Manhattan with a walking stick, promoting his new novel about how General Custer survived Little Big Horn. “He’s ‘New York Western,'” says Anderson. “He wouldn’t be very at home on the range.”

As a child, Anderson showed an interest in storytelling, though his chosen subjects were only slightly less peculiar. He staged his own plays, including an auto-racing drama he wrote called The Five Maseratis, a hand-puppet adaptation of the Kenny Rogers movie The Gambler, and a reenactment of the Battle of the Alamo. He first assumed the director’s role in the fourth grade, when a teacher bribed him to do his math homework: If he studied his multiplication tables, she said, then he could put on plays for the other students—a scheme cooked up by his mother, Texas Anderson. “Wes was a creative child. He was always making wonderful costumes for Halloween, like an R2-D2 outfit out of throwaway pie tins and spray paint,” she says. His father, Mel, gave him a super 8 camera when he was ten, and Wes began directing friends in elaborate action sequences, filming them as they staggered, covered with fake blood, across the sand dunes by his parents’ beach house. His artistic vision as an adult has proven to be no less fantastic: For The Royal Tenenbaums, he had several walls of the fictional family’s brownstone decorated with galloping zebras, and he considered shooting the entire movie on a soundstage so that snow could be falling in every scene.

New York City serves as the backdrop for The Royal Tenenbaums and is as much a character in the film as anyone in the Tenenbaum clan. This “New York of the imagination,” as Anderson calls it, first came to life in his high school library, where he used to thumb through old issues of The New Yorker. There he discovered the film reviews of Pauline Kael, which provided a crash course in the best of American cinema, and the writing of Joseph Mitchell and Lillian Ross, whose profiles of offbeat New Yorkers figured largely in the conception of The Royal Tenenbaums. Anderson also read in its pages the short stories of J. D. Salinger, whose brilliant but dysfunctional Glass family is an obvious reference. “My whole idea of New York, until I started to spend more time there, was based on books and movies and plays,” Anderson says. “Once I went there, the things that I was drawn to were informed by my preconceptions.” The film’s romanticized vision of New York has a certain faded and dusty grandeur, one that is rooted in the city’s literary past. Ironically, it took a Texan to make the most New York film in years—a nostalgic pre-September 11 snapshot done in the spirit of Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

The Royal Tenenbaums took shape in 1998, when Anderson began walking around the city, jotting down ideas in a notepad. “In Texas the urban geography is so different,” Anderson says. “I love townhouses—I’ve always had a thing for a house in the city—and I wanted to set a movie in one.” The house would function as a “pressure cooker,” with lots of characters under one roof, he decided, and would form the backdrop for a family history like in Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons. He and Owen struggled with the plot until the character of Royal Tenenbaum began to form; they fleshed out the rest of the script in part by drawing on the idiosyncrasies of family and friends. They made Royal’s wife, Etheline, an archaeologist just like Texas Anderson once was and had her wear the same style of oversized seventies sunglasses. They took the Tenenbaum name from an old classmate of Andrew’s. And they wrote the part of Pagoda, Royal’s diminutive manservant, for their friend Kumar Pallana, the owner of the Cosmic Cup coffee shop in Dallas. “Before Wes, I was nobody,” says the 83-year-old Pallana, who plays a safecracker in Bottle Rocket and a gardener in Rushmore. “Now I’m next to nobody.”

Anderson knew early on that he wanted Gene Hackman to play Royal and had a meeting with the actor in 1998. When Hackman passed on the project, Anderson began “essentially stalking him,” as he puts it. He wrote the actor dozens of pleading letters and had his brother Eric, an illustrator, send him a drawing of the cast with Hackman at the center—to no avail. Last fall he made his final pitch. “It was a nothing-to-lose kind of letter, so I was aggressive and desperate,” he says. Hackman, at last, relented.

Though Anderson got his star, he was no less nervous this November—when he was putting the final touches on The Royal Tenenbaums’ sound mix at Disney’s studios—about how the film would be received. “I really don’t like getting bad reviews,” he said. “It’s very unpleasant. One reviewer called Bottle Rocket a ‘mind-numbing black hole.’ That stuck in my mind.” The words of Pauline Kael, for whom he once arranged a private screening of Rushmore, also haunt him. “She told me she didn’t know what to make of it,” Anderson said. “Which isn’t the worst review you can get, but it’s not very encouraging!” He has little need to worry: Though The Royal Tenenbaums is only his third film, he is already garnering comparisons to some of the greatest directors of American comedy—Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen—and this time around, there is talk of possible Academy award nominations. Even Martin Scorsese, when asked by Esquire who he thought would be the “next Martin Scorsese,” named Wes Anderson. All of which is a lot of hype for such a young director. “I think he’s maturing hugely with each film,” says film critic Harry Knowles, the creator of “It’s like watching a musician write his first piece of music and then writing a concerto. We don’t know what he’ll do next. But at some point, he’ll write us a symphony.”