The Royal family

Film - Philip Kerr enjoys an intelligent comedy about domestic unhappiness

"All happy families resemble one another," wrote Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, "but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This is one of the most famous first lines in literature. It sounds great; and yet there is a big problem with it. As William Blake reminds us: "Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organised Particulars." In other words, art is seldom well served by generalisations such as Tolstoy's. Especially when the generalisation is, as in this case, complete crap.

I doubt that I am the first person ever to have made this observation about Tolstoy's neat little axiom. In the novel, the Oblonsky family is unhappy because the wife, having found out that her husband has been shagging the nanny, has announced that she can no longer go on living with him. But let's face it, there is nothing unusual about a husband shagging the nanny, as Baroness Jay discovered when her ex-husband Peter was British ambassador to the United States. Nanny-shagging is more common than you might think. Why else do you suppose nannies in Notting Hill are paid 30 grand a year, plus car? Believe me, it's not just for changing nappies and fetching the kids from school.

Even in Russia, where most of the nannies look like tractors, adultery is as commonplace as alcoholism, or domestic violence. I suspect that most unhappy families - wherever they may be - are, probably, unhappy for very similar reasons.

In Wes (Rushmore) Anderson's latest film, the Tenenbaums are an exceptional family - indeed, they make the Mitfords look like the Grundys - but, ultimately, much of their unhappiness stems from one simple fact: the Tenenbaum paterfamilias, Royal (Gene Hackman), is a selfish, feckless, lying bastard who is told by his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) that, because of his many infidelities, she cannot go on living with him. Having thrown him out, she writes a book about her gifted children entitled Family of Geniuses. (Doubtless her own genius did not extend to the proper use of the Latinate plural, but this is an American film, after all.)

Twenty-two years later, Royal hears that Etheline has a suitor, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), who wants to marry her. Facing expulsion from the ritzy New York hotel where he has been living all these years, Royal resolves to win back the affections of his wife (they never divorced) and his talented but dysfunctional children - Chas, Margot and Richie - by faking an incurable case of stomach cancer.

Reluctantly, Royal's suspicious kin welcome him back into the family bosom and, pretty soon, they are all living under the same roof, awakening long-submerged passions and old resentments.

Narrated by Alec Baldwin in a way that makes you think that Anderson must have seen Amelie, The Royal Tenenbaums is, if not a hilarious art-house comedy, certainly a very amusing one that is well outside the limits of the usual, formulaic studio comedy. While there are occasions when the movie seems a little contrived, it is nevertheless sufficiently idiosyncratic to make it well worth your while. (If you're the kind of person who enjoyed Bridget Jones's Diary, then, poor sad moron that you are, you will not enjoy this film: UK Gold exists for someone like you.) Think of Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander crossed with J D Salinger's Glass family stories, and you'll have a good idea of what this intelligent comedy is like.

As Royal's children, Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Stiller are all weird enough, although too understated for my taste. Paltrow turns in the best performance among these three, as a once promising playwright trapped in a loveless marriage to Raleigh, the most boring man in the world - a part that Bill Murray always plays to perfection. But predictably, it is Gene Hackman who steals the show. The Royal Tenenbaums is certainly nowhere near as good as The French Connection, for which Hackman won an Academy award 30 years ago this month. However, Hollywood is dumb enough to hand out Oscar nominations for second-rate performances such as Russell Crowe's in A Beautiful Mind, or Will Smith's in Ali, and Hackman (now aged 72) was no less deserving of a nomination this year than these two actors.

Hackman is always compelling, even in bad films. If there are any Bafta judges reading this column, please take note: he may not be the best-looking guy on the block, but as someone once observed, as an actor, he is the "last honest man in America". To me, it looks like an oversight for Bafta to have honoured that over-rated, superannuated beach boy Warren Beatty, who hasn't made a good film in 25 years, and not to have similarly honoured Hackman, who continues to do good work - he won an Oscar as recently as 1993, for Unforgiven. Obviously, Beatty just sweats glamour, which no doubt explains the attraction he held for the deluded Bafta judges. As Tolstoy again once said: "It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness." Now that's something you can believe.

The Royal Tenenbaums (15) is on general release