I want to preface this piece by saying that I love Wes Anderson- I would even date him (hey Wes, I’m newly single- call me!). I want to say this because I am about to pan his new film, and I want it to be clear that it is painful to do so. Because I love him.
The Darjeeling Limited is a movie about three estranged brothers who meet in India to reconnect and embark on a spiritual journey, though it is clear that spirituality and brotherhood do not come easily to them. The brothers are Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson), Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody), and Jack Whitman (Jason Schwartzman). The movie is about three men on a train and occasionally off a train, and, unfortunately, it is very close to being a train wreck. In fact, one scene in the movie echoed exactly how I felt about the lazy plot. The train the brothers are on gets lost and no one can comprehend how such a thing is even possible. It doesn’t derail, mind you, it just inexplicably meanders off course and no one knows where they are. How apropos.
In a film that tries so hard to be both funny and poignant, something that audiences have come to expect from a Wes Anderson flick , it is ironic that the most heartrending part of the movie has nothing to do with the story actually being told. That is it say, watching a bloodied and bandaged Owen Wilson (his character, Francis, had recently suffered an “accident”) for two hours is very sad indeed, given Wilson’s recent reported suicide attempt. When the film itself broaches the subject of death and tragedy, it is so ill-timed and awkwardly done that one is left feeling nothing.
Visually, of course, the movie is stunning- one would expect nothing less from the detail-obsessed Anderson. Whether we’re at a prep school, a New York townhouse, at sea, or in India, we are unmistakably in Wesland, and it is quite a feat, actually. Very few directors are so quickly identifiable by their style, and in that respect Anderson is right up there with Hitchcock. In fact, this is the only reason I can think of as to how on earth The Life Aquatic went straight to the prestigious Criterion Collection, whereas, say, Godard’s Breathless didn’t make the cut until one hundred and eight movies later. It disturbs me that Anderson is so revered and his cult status is so solidified that his movies are considered instant contemporary classics even if they’re mediocre. But I digress.
Each of Anderson’s movies has been more visually detail-oriented than the one preceding it, but with each set more impressive than the next, something gets lost in plot and character development. A lot of this could have to do with Anderson’s co-writers. Wilson was the co-writer for the first three films, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums. All of those movies had a beautiful tension to them- they were goofy, yet tragic, hilarious, yet morbidly depressing. 2004’s The Life Aquatic was the first film that really failed to be anything but clever and fun.
However, after seeing The Darjeeling Limited, The Life Aquatic is starting to look pretty darn good to me in retrospect. Looking again to the writers, Anderson had the very capable Noah Baumbach to help him along with Aquatic, but it seems that his Darjeeling co-writers, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman just don’t possess adequate writing chops. Aquatic was shallow, but the dialogue was good. Yes, Roman and Jason are both Coppolas, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean that they are on a par with Francis, or even Sophia. And Schwartzman as an actor in this film is a dud. In past films he has been extremely convincing as a loser or a lovable eccentric, but his effort to be moody is a stretch. His very presence in The Hotel Chevalier, a 13 minute preface to Darjeeling (available for free online), is downright embarrassing. Coppola or not, there is no way Natalie Portman would date this guy, and I couldn’t suspend my disbelief for two minutes, let alone thirteen.
Wes wrote this one himself, so if you crave cringe-worthy dialogue, then check it out. Natalie Portman’s ethereal beauty is the only interesting thing about the short.
The three brothers spend most of their time on the train (which is called The Darjeeling Limited, if you haven’t guessed that already) drinking cough syrup, chain-smoking and taking whatever pills they can find for sale in India. I suspect that had I and my fellow theater-goers been high and chain-smoking, we might have had a better time than we did. The whole movie generated exactly one universal laugh, which I won’t give away here.
Anderson’s obsession with cigarettes is bizarre, and I have never been able to put my finger on it. Cigarettes are practically costars in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the words “Sweet Aftos” (Margot Tenenbaum’s brand) appear in the cast of characters when the final credits rolled.. Here again, everyone smokes. In a way it makes his films seem old-fashioned, throw-backs to a time of socially acceptable alcoholism and smoking. Given Anderson’s obsession with all things retro, the appearance of an ipod in this movie was downright weird. Even the luggage that the three men cart around for the whole movie is unlike anything anyone would reasonably expect to see today: it is leather, heavy, no wheels (you get the idea). It is symbolic of the emotional baggage that the brothers carry, and I’m very sorry to say that there is a literal letting go of said baggage at the end of the film.
Too easy, I thought to myself, as I watched the men smile in relief as their abandoned luggage faded into the distance and their train trundled away.
Don’t get me wrong: The Darjeeling Limited is not without its good points (Wilson is hilarious, Brody is charming), it’s just that it doesn’t have enough good points to make it a good movie. I believe I have the solution for any future efforts: Owen, cheer up and pick up a pen- your buddy Wes needs you. Heck, America needs you. And Wes, please forgive this.