Saturday, October 20, 2007

They ain't kidding when they say Limited.

In the opening scene of Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, we see an American businessman (Anderson regular Bill Murray) in a taxi, racing through traffic in an unnamed Indian city on his way to the train station. He runs into the station, buys his ticket, and tries to chase down the titular train. As he races down the platform, he's overtaken by Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody), also running for the train. The film slips into one of Anderson's trademark slow motion shots, set to the Kinks' "This Time Tomorrow." Peter catches the train, the businessman does not, and when Peter finally climbs the back of the caboose, he turns to see the other man, still on the platform. It's a lovely bit of filmmaking, and an inspired beginning for the film. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn't live up to it.

The story involves three grown rich-kid brothers- Peter, Francis (Owen Wilson), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman)- taking a so-called "spiritual journey" through India. As Anderson's films are pretty much always about failure, it's no surprise that the boys don't even come close to enlightenment. The most shocking failure of the film is how little weight any of it has. Part of the problem is that none of the characters makes much of an impression. Fully-realized characters have never been one of Anderson's strong points, and that's never been so glaringly apparent as in Darjeeling.

In his previous films, Anderson has always found room within the story for small, indelible bits of character business that really cements them in our minds- Dignan's 150 year plan, Blume's relationship to his sons, Margot's secret smoking habit, Hennessey's reaction when Steve comes to rescue him. Here there are plenty of character quirks, but none of them feel especially illuminating. They just feel quirky for quirky's sake. Also, I didn't simply make the above list of characters from Anderson's previous films to be a completist- I remembered each and every one off the top of my head. I doubt I'll be able to make the same claim about anyone in Darjeeling a week from now, with the possible exception of the lovely Rita (aka Sweet Lime), played by Amara Karan.

For years I've defended Anderson's tendency towards whimsy in his films, but I fear that he's lost me this time around. Darjeeling is a marvel of design, but there's no soul underneath. Everything feels calculated rather than felt. I think the difference between this movie and Anderson's earlier, better films is that this one lacks a grounding character, a principal figure in the story who is somewhat detached from the whimsy. In both Rushmore and The Life Aquatic this character was played by Bill Murray, a master of wry melancholy whose very presence provided a rueful commentary on his surroundings. Similarly, The Royal Tenenbaums had Gene Hackman's Royal, a salty old coot who was literally on the outside looking in, a contrast to the Salingeresque Tenenbaum family proper. I was hoping that the skeptical Peter might turn out to be that character in Darjeeling, but no dice- despite some initial resistance, even he gets swept up (by rapids, to be precise) into the spirit of the journey. That Adrien Brody gives easily the best performance of the three principals only makes it more unfortunate when the character proves to be something of a non-starter. In the end, it all got to be a little much to bear. (Happy now, Steve?)

Also, the baggage at the end? Probably not a good idea.

Despite this misstep, I believe Wes Anderson remains a major artist. Unlike some people, I don't hate The Darjeeling Limited, but- not to put too fine a point on it- if he wants to truly progress as a filmmaker, he'll need to extract his head from his ass. In the mid-90s, both Wes and another Anderson (Paul Thomas) emerged as important new voices on the cinematic horizon. But while Wes quickly honed a trademark style to the brink of becoming a schtick, P.T. continued to challenge himself in new genres and styles. Wes Anderson has already been anointed the next Scorsese by Scorsese himself, but if he really wants to become twenty years from now what Scorsese is today, he's going to need to step outside his comfort zone sooner rather than later.

Rating: 4 out of 10.


Kza said...

Boom-shocka-locka! You nailed it.

James said...

You can count me in as a hater. This thing just wallowed in self-satisfaction, felt so impressed with itself that all involved decided that they need not bother making it remotely watchable. And I almost threw a fit in the theater when they ALMOST got on the plane home and then changed their minds.

And did that short at the beginning have anything to do with anything? What did it tell us other than that Jason Schwartzman once banged Natalie Portman? Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, since I found The Royal Tenebaums a real snoozefest, but this was just outright bad, the kind of bad that only talented people like Wes Anderson can pull off.

Paul C. said...

The sad thing is that I AM a fan of Anderson's other movies, but this one finally allowed me to agree with their criticisms of him, rather than simply smiling and nodding. And maybe you have to enjoy Darjeeling to get into Hotel Chevalier, but to me it was just more of the same. All this "it deepens your appreciation of Darjeeling" is kind of bullshit.

I'll watch this again when it comes out on DVD, just to make sure that I wasn't simply overreacting to the movie out of disappointment. But if not, this is primo "When Good Directors Go Bad" material. Here's hoping the other Anderson has a stronger showing this fall. He'd almost have to...

James said...

Bullshit may be too weak of a word, but I'm not a good enough writer to top it.

I loved Rushmore and Life Aquatic, so I've defended Anderson on a few occasions. You're right, though, about this being a case where his flaws are open for all to see. I knew that I might not like it, but I didn't think I'd be so repelled by it. I guess that when you hate something by a talented filmmaker, it's easy to really hate it, as opposed to just being contemptuous.