Chicago Film Festival, Intermission: The Darjeeling Limited
Meanwhile, speaking of music fans, the most courageous moves Wes Anderson makes in The Darjeeling Limited are to thwart his usual propensity toward wall-to-wall song scores and to throw the word Limited into the title of his film. Movie, know thyself! Anderson's last outing aboard The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou encompassed bigger formal and tonal experiments than this one does, but unfortunately, some of his big stretchesthe eruption of brutal violence, the shrill and fluty performance by repertory outsider Cate Blanchetthindered that film more than they helped. The Darjeeling Limited, like The Life Aquatic, makes another leap in physical setting but neither aspires to nor achieves any real breakthroughs for Anderson's intensely specific and frustratingly dehumanizing style.
Nothing works in the plotline about three brothers half-attempting to solidify their fraternal bonds during a voyage to India, and worse than that, nothing seems designed to work. Anderson, his actors, and his two co-writers (including co-lead Jason Schwartzman) seem passingly aware of the arrogant, colonizing narcissism of the plotline, and both the foibles of the brothers and the pop exaggerations of plot, color, and camerawork invite us to make fun of the enterprise even as the movie undeniably invests itself in the brothers' compulsory neuroses and half-sketched backstories about a dead dad and a fugitive mom. "B) I want us to make this trip a spiritual journey and to seek the unknown and to learn from it," Owen Wilson itinerizes in his self-appointed capacity as docent and chaperone, and while the movie unmistakably underlines his naïve officiousness, Anderson is just as programmatic and just as annoyingly semi-serious about wanting the Brothers Whitman to grow toward each other and toward themselves through an astonishingly arrogant series of quasi-adventures: a railway fling with a cabin stewardess, an unforeseen involvement in the death of an Indian child, an unannounced arrival at the convent their mother now calls home, etc. As usual, Anderson takes on bigger character arcs and denser pre-histories than his flattening style and steady narrative clip are prepared or inclined to make good on. By extension, his actors become mannequins for banal forms of melancholy (mirthful as well as rueful) that are meant to compensate for but finally just advertise the thinness of their roles and, save for the best stretches of Royal Tenenbaums, the immunity to richer emotion that appear more and more inveterate to Anderson's filmmaking style. "You wanna read a short story I wrote in France?" Jason Schwartzman's character asks his brothers over lunch, beneath and within which you can hear Anderson asking his audience, "You wanna see a movie I started rough-drafting when I was in India?"
The real shame here is that The Darjeeling Limited could have suited and also challenged Anderson's formal and affective idioms so much better, and indeed shows the potential of doing so through the first 20 or 30 minutes. As always, the fine-tuned and filigreed sets and the textured, rectilinear, fluorescent production design are ocular pleasures, but the natty uniforms and delicious wallpapers aboard the Darjeeling Limited trainself-conscious as they already arealso implicitly connote the fetishistic cocoon of comfort and pleasure in which the Whitman boys encase themselves while they only pretend to intersect with a far-removed and, as we know, a greatly suffering culture. Imagine, then, what might have happened, visually and cinematographically, when the Whitmans jettisoned this dollhouse perimeter of Colorforms fantasy and Louis Vuitton comfort and tried to maintain this lacquered, perpendicular worldview among the chaos, the multiplicities, the energies, the shortages and surfeits of India. Anderson had a double-barreled metaphor here in his holster (and designed to a tee by Mark Friedberg) but he never realizes or utilizes it: the film is so lost in its own inflexible style that the Indians' emotions and domestic lives remain totally elided, even when the brothers accept an invitation to a local funeral. Indeed, the film seizes the moment to flashback to the day of their own father's death, rather than let India, any India, even this Playmobile India, actually weave its way into their minds or hearts. Neither the feel nor the look of the film evolve in any impressive way after the three man-children debark their train, and their own peccadilloes and reciprocal resentments stay pretty steady until the hour arrives for their pat quasi-resolutions.
In another promising but missed opportunity for a breakthrough, Anjelica Huston, sprung from that coldly pinched mode of acting to which Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic both bound her, shows up in the last ten minutes of Darjeeling Limited. Here, she's rocking a short, cropped, and very gray hairstyle, and she accuses her director, I think, and not just her pretend-sons, of looking right past her own reality and repeatedly perceiving a thin idealization where she, a real and complicated woman, is standing. Huston's voice, manner, and message during her short appearance all force the film to a new level of self-scrutiny, and it's perfectly symptomatic that, faced with such a steeled, charismatic personality with her own point of view, The Darjeeling Limited can't do anything but hustle to a close. The evidence of talent persists in Anderson's work, but the prognosis of terminal solipsism and emotional dilettantism draws ever fuller support. C