Dir Wes Anderson. US 2001. 108mins.

The same distinctive sensibility that informed Wes Anderson's first two innovative films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, is very much in evidence in his new serio-comedy, The Royal Tenenbaums, except that the scope is more ambitious, the budget bigger and the cast more glamorous. With brief, wild strokes, the gifted Anderson paints onscreen a canvas of a three-generational dysfunctional family, headed by an errant, neglectful father (masterfully played by Gene Hackman), whose main wish is to reunite with the rest of his tribe before his presumably impending death. Although Anderson continues to be a critics' darling, his efforts have not reached audiences beyond the arthouse circuit: Bottle Rocket (a Columbia pick-up) was a festival favourite but seen by few; and Rushmore (Touchstone), his best and most coherent film to date, did not even recoup its modest budget of about $15 million. The new film's most exploitable marketing hook is its stellar cast that includes, in addition to Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Bill Murray, Luke and Owen Wilson (the latter is Anderson's writing collaborator), among others. Regrettably, due to the film's literary format, stylised visuals, postcard-like framing and particularly radically shifting tone (between scenes and often within the same scene), The Royal Tenenbaums is not likely to be the big commercial breakout that distributor Touchstone was hoping its holiday release would be, although it will do better than Anderson's previous outings. The film received its world premiere at the New York film festival in October.

The good news is that, despite his singular cinematic vision, Anderson, unlike most indie directors, does not repeat himself. Each of his three pictures flaunts a different narrative and distinct style. The bad news is that the format chosen for his new feature is literary: the family album unfolds as a book, divided into chapters, each flashed onscreen with its title, pages and characters. The end result is a vastly uneven film that, like a massive novel, contains some brilliant episodes, but also some that are too clipped or too fake, though by design.

The Royal Tenenbaums renders a new meaning to the term "dysfunctional family", a concept much used and abused in American pop culture during the past decade. The "literary adaptation" commences with Alec Baldwin's hefty narration, which introduces the large gallery of characters forming the clan and its associates: father Royal (Hackman), wife Etheline (Huston), their two boys, Chas (Stiller) and Richie (Luke Wilson) and their adopted girl, Margot (Paltrow). The clan, particularly the kids, have been encouraged by their eccentric parents to cultivate their idiosyncratic gifts and to never be ashamed of their unique attributes, such as Margot's missing finger. We also learn that Royal, a former litigator, could not embrace his paternal responsibilities and deserted his family.

Chas started buying real estate in his early teens, benefiting from an almost preternatural understanding of international finance. Margot was a successful juvenile playwright who won a prestigious $50,000 grant while only in the ninth grade. A junior tennis champion, Richie was for three years running the winner of the US Nationals. Unfortunately, the memory of all this brilliance was subsequently erased by betrayal, failure and disaster, both natural and man-made, largely due to their father's fault.

The story then jumps ahead to 22 years later, when Royal is a layabout (at one point he works as elevator operator) in his post-legal career, having been disbarred and serves time in prison. Royal's sole wish now is to reconcile with his family before it is too late, and to achieve that goal he claims to be dying. His companion, Pagoda (Pallana), pretends to be his doctor, supplying an alibi for all the incredible stories he invents about his various illnesses.

Meanwhile his separated (but officially still married) spouse Etheline, who has carried the family burden single-handedly, is trying to forge a new life for herself with a new beau, Henry (Glover), her distanced bridge partner. After a long courtship, the reserved Henry pulls himself together and proposes to the utterly shocked Etheline, a woman who, by her own admission, has not slept with any man in 18 years.

The main story depicts the family's fables and foibles once all the children find an excuse to move back home. Royal's "rationale" for residing under the same roof is that he's got only six weeks to live, a ploy that he uses to prevent Etheline from marrying Henry. Parallel to the adult romantic triangle is a more youthful but equally problematic one. Margot, a gifted writer who hasn't produced a play in years, is near suicidal, locking herself in the bathroom with her pot and music. Although married to a loving man, Raleigh (Murray), she 'advertently' and inadvertently encourages romantic advances from her own siblings - and other men. Anderson's humour is wonderfully droll in dealing with the issue of whether or not these affairs are illicit or incestuous; strictly speaking, Margot is not Richie's sister, and Royal gives his blessing.

It is impossible to do justice to the multi-nuanced, ever-shifting story and its persona. In its good moments, which are plentiful, The Royal Tenenbaums presents a tragic-comic critique of a clan of geniuses, with each member adept at a particular skill - but, as a result of an awful family life, each becomes ill-suited to deal with the kinds of problems most mature people have to contend with. Like Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, Anderson's new work is full of surprising warmth and charm, but even more than his former films, The Royal Tenenbuams boasts an expansive plot replete with twists, turns and droll characters who bounce off each other in refreshing, often shocking, ways.

Throughout, Anderson demonstrates a tight control (perhaps too much) over every aspect of his production, from the writing to the staging to the overall visual design and pacing. Since the feature consists of numerous chapters and multiple segments within each chapter, the performers are unable to develop much continuity. Nor does it help that Anderson variegates the emotional tone from scene to scene and has his cast face the camera directly, rather than each other, while delivering their lines.

Some viewers may also be upset by Anderson's treatment of his characters as both naive and savvy stooges, active yet passive people with "goals" to pursue, be it love, friendship, crime or just notoriety. What the new film's characters share with those of the director's earlier work is a constant, inventive verbosity that has not been heard on the American screen since Preston Sturges in the 1940s. Anderson's dialogue is smart but also deliberately contrived, decorated with a steady stream of deadpan humour that occasionally feels forced, at least compared with his first pictures.

With the exception of disappointing performances from Murray (who was so brilliant in Rushmore) and Stiller, who reverts to his usual shtick, all the other actors hit their marks, particularly Hackman, whose versatility seems to knows no bounds. Endowed with the meatiest role, Hackman provides the cement for an arduously tricky film that might be too episodic and disjointed for its own good.

In a year of mostly bad or mediocre mainstream fare, it may be ironic to fault a film like The Royal Tenenbaums for overreaching in its aspirations.