Monday, March 10, 2008
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
“The train is lost,” says a character near the midpoint of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited. “How can a train be lost?” says Jack, one of the three upperclass brothers (played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman) who’ve come to India on a spiritual quest, “It’s on rails.” This line, which in Anderson’s world passes for dry humor, is a strangely apt metaphor for the film itself, which had until this point been mildly promising. Unfortunately, the brothers are soon booted off the train and the film, Anderson’s fifth, effectively falls of the rails and succumbs to the familiar pitfalls that have plagued all of the director’s post-Rushmore oeuvre. By the time the trio saves some impoverished Indian children from drowning in a river and journeys to a remote Himalayan convent to reunite with their mother (Anjelica Huston), it becomes apparent that Anderson’s aesthetic preoccupations and frustratingly offbeat storytelling style have led him to squander yet another interesting premise.
Much like Anderson’s undeniably awful The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited finds a group of clueless characters stuck together in transit, this time onboard a train, as they try to reconnect and work through the ennui that seems to inevitably follow a life of privilege and comfort. The Whitman brothers, Francis (Wilson), Peter (Brody), and Jack (Schwartzman), have not seen each other since the tragic death of their father a year earlier, and have rendezvoused in India at Francis’ request to try and find themselves. Jack has spent the previous months hiding out from his girlfriend in a swank Paris hotel room, a backstory that is constructed in the plodding and ultimately unnecessary short film Hotel Chevalier, which sometimes played before the movie during its theatrical run, and Peter is coming to terms with the upcoming birth of his first child. Francis, the oldest brother, is still recovering from a near-deadly car accident, and spends the majority of the film with his head wrapped in bandages. With the help of his personal assistant, Brendan, he has planned an extensive itinerary of spiritual experiences that he hopes will bring the three together again as brothers.
Regrettably, this is the extent of what we get to know about the Whitmans, as Anderson seems much more concerned with having them wear unusual clothes and quibble with one another than he does with any kind of character development. Meanwhile, what is ostensibly the story of an estranged family trying to reunite is repeatedly hijacked in favor of insipid subplots like Jack’s affair with an Indian train employee, or Peter’s buying a poisonous snake, all of which slowly reveal themselves to be contrived plot devices designed solely to speed the Whitmans' expulsion from the train. Even a scene that flashes back to the day of their father’s funeral wastes its opportunity to provide some insight and falls back on tiresome attempts at humor. Anderson’s writing seems to have been on an increasingly downhill slope for the past few years, starting with the charming Rushmore and then moving from the overly-stylized The Royal Tenenbaums to the downright bad The Life Aquatic, and it may have reached a low point with this film, which was co-written by Schwartzman and Roman Coppola. It’s as though their notes for who these characters were consisted entirely of what kind of clothes they would wear and what music would play in key scenes, and the plot was a mere formality to get these bumbling characters from one quirky situation to another.
Wilson, Brody, and Schwartzman do what they can with the vaguely-sketched Whitman brothers, and it’s to their credit that they only become annoying about halfway through the film. Owen Wilson does his patented Owen Wilson character-- dumb and sometimes offensive but well-meaning, but it doesn’t work as well here as it has in Anderson’s other films. For his part, Jason Schwartzman probably understands what film he is more than any of the principles, and maintains a kind of melancholy distance for the duration, while Brody’s character is the least-developed of all and seems to have been included solely to balance the polar opposites Jack and Francis. It’s just that kind of movie.
Stylistically, The Darjeeling Limited isn’t much different from the rest of Anderson’s work, and whether or not that’s a good thing is almost entirely a matter of personal preference. There is a wealth of tracking shots, pop songs, and bright colors, and the mise en scene is crammed with the detritus of the Whitman’s upperclass lifestyle, from Jack’s portable i-pod player to their Louis Vuitton luggage, which is carried behind them throughout their journey by a collection of Indian porters.
For me, these technical gimmicks and Anderson’s obsession with trivial objects and tidy, symmetrical framing were exhausted in Rushmore and quickly became tired thereafter. It’s an old and oft-expressed complaint about Anderson, but his tendency to fill his frame with offbeat colors, patterns, costumes and objects is only a superficial screen to compensate for what is in the end a lack of dramatic depth. He undoubtedly possesses a gift for composing interesting shots, but he doesn’t know what they mean or why they matter, and here more than ever it seems like he’s just going through the motions of what he assumes to be his personal style.
The Darjeeling Limited posed a unique opportunity for Anderson to move out of this comfort zone by changing the milieu to India-- even if he did take his usual cast of aristocratic New York eccentrics along for the ride-- but he failed to grasp it. Not only has his visual style become more suffocating than before, but the fresh and believable characters that made Rushmore rewarding have been replaced by paper-thin caricatures. That the film is amusing for its first third is no doubt thanks to Anderson’s vibrant style, but once it becomes apparent that it’s all we’re going to get, The Darjeeling Limited becomes yet another exercise in his particular brand of triviality.