"Look at these assholes."
That’s the funniest line in The Darjeeling Limited, and it also marks the point where the film slowly begins to deflate. At this point in the film the three Whitman brothers who are taking a train trip across India come across another group of brothers taking their own trip, across a river. When their home-made barge capsizes, the Whitmans leap in to rescue the boys. After two thirds of the movie spent fighting and arguing, now the brother start learning some lessons about life, and since they’re such obvious and trite lessons (which in no way invalidates their essential truth, by the way), the quirky Wes Anderson-ian air goes out of the movie.
Here’s an essential problem with reviewing Wes Anderson films: they’re all good, even when they’re not. The man is a supremely talented filmmaker, and his movies are always wonderful to look at and easy to sit through. One viewing is rarely enough to really get at the heart of the film, because there’s so much great stuff happening on the surface. My first viewing of The Life Aquatic sent me out of the theater thinking I had seen another masterpiece; it took a couple of spins of the DVD to convince me that the movie was Anderson’s great misstep. It’s with that in mind that I told myself I wouldn’t review this film until I had seen it a second time. That opportunity never arose, and here we are with the film opening wider and no review on the site – the time has obviously come for me to try to peek through the decorations and see what the heart of this movie really is.
India is a perfect place for Wes Anderson to film. The colors and the quirk seem to be right out of his head, and he shoots the crowded marketplaces and holy temples with a sense of sublime beauty. Darjeeling is a sumptuous film, a warm glow of colors that invites you to sink right in. I loved watching this movie on a purely visceral level.
But what about everything else? The film has fine performances from its three leads, especially Adrien Brody, who I have finally connected with. I have seen him in other films and recognized his talent but never quite liked him; in Darjeeling he’s perfect in his levels of frustration and loss. Jason Schwartzman, who helped write the screenplay, is decent as the youngest brother, a writer who only writes about his own life while vehemently denying any of it is autobiographical (note that Anderson has two brothers and makes movies about large families and people with father issues). And while I think Brody is the standout actor, Owen Wilson’s performance takes on a haunting quality after his real life suicide attempt; Wes Anderson has called Wilson his best friend, and I wonder how much of this character was based on Wes’ observations of his self-destructive friend.
The three brothers have not spoken in a year, since their father died. That’s your obligatory father issue in a Wes Anderson film, by the way, and he’s kind enough to get it mostly out of the way. The film makes me wonder if he’s not just completely done with that obsession; the brothers carry their belongings in their dead father’s luggage, which they schlep across increasingly inhospitable landscapes until they are finally forced to literally toss it all aside in a slow motion shot. It’s not the most subtle moment, but then this feels like Anderson’s least subtle film – so much of it is right on the nose, which is what is bringing on my ambivalence about the movie.
See, the brothers on a trip of self-discovery, but they’re on rails. They’re going along a decided path, even if it’s one they think they’ve chosen. At one point the train, despite being on rails, gets lost, and they almost get left behind while off doing a quasi-mystical ritual. Later they do get left behind, thanks to their constant flaunting of train rules and being bad passengers, and wouldn’t you know it, that’s the best thing that’s ever happened to them. If you don’t get the train’s metaphor, Anderson later inserts a dollhouse shot (think of that shot in Life Aquatic with the cutaway walls, where you could see everything happening on the boat) where all the characters – minor and major – are riding the Darjeeling Limited. Hey man, we’re like all on this train together.
Again, it’s not that the metaphors and themes that Anderson and his co-writers (Schwartzman and Roman Coppola) use that bothers me, it’s their rank obviousness. Anderson needs to get back to writing with Wilson, who seemed able to cut his narrative patness with an unpredictable splash of acid and glee. Anderson’s strength – he’s a consummate visual stylist, a natural born scene maker – is also his weakness, in that he favors obvious constructions, representations and meanings in his scripts. Like The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited LOOKS a lot wackier than it is at heart. You had to dig through a lot more that was legitimately unique and off-kilter in The Royal Tennenbaums, Rushmore and Bottle Rocket to get to the conventional center of those movies.
Maybe that’s not so bad. Maybe that’s the evolution of Anderson as a filmmaker, moving more to the mainstream while holding on to his visual style. That would parallel the journey of Tim Burton, a director who I have said looks and films like the Bizarro Anderson (they both even have the same daddy complex). That said, I haven’t genuinely LIKED a Burton movie in a decade, and I would hate to see Anderson begin churning out films that are a safe version of his vision (not that his vision was ever as transgressive as Burton’s). If he’s not going to get Wilson back on board as a writing partner, Anderson should really think about picking up someone else’s script and seeing what happens when he applies his style to another person’s words and obsessions.
If I saw Darjeeling again I might be able to get past the triteness of the third act, knowing what was waiting for me. The obviousness of some of the stuff that comes at the end doesn’t sink the film for me, but it makes me wish that someone had given Anderson and pals some strong script advice; the setting is perfect, the actors are great, the cinematography is wonderful, the thematic concepts ring true, but the script under it all is just too flimsy.
A note on Hotel Chevalier: While this short was made a year before Darjeeling, it feels more mature and more complete in itself than the feature film. It’s a wonderful little piece, and you need to see it before you see Darjeeling. You can catch it on iTunes, and if Fox Searchlight was smart they’d start attaching it to prints of the feature immediately.