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THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS One of the most unusual productions of 2001, this new piece from the makers of Rushmore ­ writer-director Wes Anderson and co-scripter Owen Wilson ­ doesn't offer the sort of instant guffaw gratification we generally get from American comedies; instead, its laughs are like stealth bombers, sneaking up on us to the extent that we suddenly find ourselves chortling even as we're wrapped up in the movie's unexpected air of melancholia. Gene Hackman heads the cast as Royal Tenenbaum, who, after abandoning his family two decades earlier, suddenly tries to worm his way back into their lives. Matriarch Etheline (Anjelica Huston) is suspicious, but no more so than the pair's grown children, all of whom were child prodigies before family dysfunction and their own neuroses left them psychologically adrift. Through odd circumstances, both parents and all three kids ­ failed playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), former tennis pro Richie (Luke Wilson) and uptight businessman Chas (Ben Stiller) ­ find themselves again living under the same roof, a pressure cooker situation that causes all sorts of messy emotions to spill over. Anderson's efforts to punch across his particular brand of eccentric humor are often heavy-handed ­ the film's wink-wink self-awareness is abnormally high, even for a hip comedy ­ but his ability to make us care about these flawed, sad characters can't be underestimated. The entire cast clicks, though this is Hackman's show all the way: Refusing to pander to audience sympathies, he makes Royal simultaneously endearing and infuriating. Come to think of it, the same can be said about the movie itself.


ALI When casting actors as instantly recognizable icons, it's best to either pick unknowns who can transform themselves into their subjects without having to contend with viewer baggage (e.g., then-anonymous Ben Kingsley in Gandhi) or choose widely respected performers known for their ability to get at the hearts of their characters (Anthony Hopkins in Nixon). In the case of Ali, Michael Mann's look at the (larger-than-)life and turbulent times of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, Will Smith's work in the role is ultimately about as convincing as that of a sixth-grader who dons a long coat and fake beard to play Abe Lincoln in the school play. Smith may have been placed in an impossible situation: Never once sinking into the role of Ali to the point where we forget it is Will Smith, the young actor faces a perpetual losing battle, as his own strain of charisma doesn't come close to matching the volcanic intensity spewed forth by the real Ali. Still, let's cut Smith some slack and go after the real criminal mastermind behind Ali: Director-cowriter Mann, who had the daunting task of condensing Ali's life into a 158-minute running time. Forget about historical accuracy: The movie that unfolds on-screen is so imbalanced in what's accorded screen time, so slipshod in its development of supporting characters, and so inefficient in penetrating the Ali mystique, its only saving graces are a handful of isolated scenes and an amusing turn by Jon Voight as a waxworks Howard Cosell. Skip this and rent the excellent documentary When We Were Kings, which provides precious footage of the real Ali in all his raging splendor.

A BEAUTIFUL MIND Perhaps wary of the controversy that surrounded the liberal handling of factual material in films like The Hurricane and JFK, the makers of A Beautiful Mind have gone out of their way to make it known upfront that their movie is "a semi-fictional story" and "a distinctive departure from the source material." So with that out of the way, maybe even sticklers for historical accuracy will be able to grudgingly admit that Ron Howard's latest work emerges as one of the best films of the year. Howard's never been known for taking a radical approach to cinema ­ even his best pictures (like Apollo 13) have a stuffed-shirt quality about them ­ but in tackling the story of John Forbes Nash Jr., the mathematical genius who suffered from schizophrenia for most of his life but still went on to win the Nobel Prize, Howard has loosened up enough to imbue the project with a jangled-nerve approach that paradoxically allows us to feel like both observers and participants in Nash's never-ending struggles with his own mind. Russell Crowe, in his first appearance since winning the Oscar for Gladiator, is excellent as Nash, but almost as impressive is Jennifer Connelly, the raven-haired beauty who, after being dismissed over the past decade-plus as pin-up fodder, builds on last year's Requiem for a Dream breakout with a touching performance as Nash's saintly wife, who weathered her husband's fluctuating fortunes down through the decades. Another plus: A superb score by James Horner (Titanic) that never travels quite where we'd expect. 1/2

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