Off the Rails
The growing pains of director Wes Anderson
BY JASON BLAIR
THE DARJEELING LIMITED: Directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Shwartzman. Cinematography, Robert Yeoman. Starring Owen Wilson. Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman and Anjelica Houston. Fox Searchlight, 2007. R. 91 minutes.
|Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson in The Darjeeling Limited
To Wes Anderson, grownups are inscrutable. That much is clear from the director’s first three films — Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums — which, in addition to being his best work, portray parents as self-interested, sweetly incompetent or simply missing. The much-discussed Anderson aesthetic, then, is in large part about what kids might create if left to their own devices. Dalmation mice in Tenenbaums, for example, or a mountain-sized aquarium in Rushmore. But what drew so many to Anderson’s first three films — and what his fourth film, The Life Aquatic, fatally lacked — is a tonal formality strained through the awkwardness of youth, much like the stories of J.D. Salinger. In Anderson’s work, which is clearly influenced by Salinger, there’s a surprising discontentedness, a weariness that doesn’t rightly belong to the youthful, often resulting from a stunning fall from grace that would put most adults in therapy. Aquatic was a significant departure for Anderson in that, for the first time, he turned to manhood as a subject; while the ambivalence that runs through the film might be due to him using a new writing partner (Noah Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale), it might also reflect Anderson’s uncertainty with adulthood as a subject. Maybe it isn’t grownups as much as growing up that unsettles him.
The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson’s fifth film, is also about growing up, and while it improves upon his last film, it is nevertheless a disappointment. The film is about three brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), who take the fictional Darjeeling Limited train across India one year after their father’s death. Francis, the fragile yet controlling older brother, is so determined to lead them on a spiritual journey that he can’t avoid his own self-reflexive ironies, such as the use of laminated itinerary cards to ensure they don’t sidestep enlightenment. While Jack uses sex to salve depression, Peter merely internalizes everything. All three follow a strict diet aboard Darjeeling of pills, alcohol, cough medicines and the like. The harder they try, the further away they find themselves from each other and inner peace.
Then, both suddenly and predictably, they come across the scene of an accident. Forced to act — but more importantly, forced to abandon their self-indulgences — they are swept into a world of consequence and, quite possibly, spiritual reward. Anderson deserves credit for allowing real death and real sex into his films for the first time — not graphically, but not in a precious, childlike way, either — and he’s the only director I can think of that makes movies without a villain. (In Rushmore, Max has a nemesis, but that’s just it — she’s only a nemesis.) But Anderson’s generosity isn’t enough to make Darjeeling a rewarding or successful film. After a long first act of watching the brothers play out their neuroses, the scenes that follow feel thrust upon them to suit Anderson’s needs, not theirs. It’s a hopeful film, just not a coherent one, what with its two distinct halves and confusing final sequence that goes on far longer than it should. It’s not a grim mess like Life Aquatic, but it’s a mess nonetheless. The sense of adventure from his prior films remains. But the sense of fun — weird and exuberant fun — is gone.
The Darjeeling Limited is preceded by the 13-minute Anderson short Hotel Chevalier, starring Natalie Portman and Jason Schwartzman.
The Darjeeling Limited opens Friday, Oct. 26, at the Bijou.