Movie Review: The Darjeeling Limited
By Shane Jenkins
October 10, 2007
I feel like I need to give you a bit of background information for this review. Rushmore is my favorite movie. The Royal Tenenbaums is in my top five. I think Bottle Rocket is a great debut film, and I even love The Life Aquatic, though I'll admit it's not up to the standards of the others. Basically, I'm a Wes Anderson superfan. So it pains me greatly to say that his newest film, The Darjeeling Limited, doesn't work. At all.
The style of Anderson's films is instantly recognizable -- the pan shots, characters peering into the camera, obsessive attention to color and small details, the omnipresence of Futura font. Lately, he's been using his bag of tricks in a series of entertaining ads for American Express and AT&T. I like these commercials, but I think they are part of the problem with Darjeeling. Now that he's ubiquitous, it's hard to get excited about his work, which seemed so fresh even just a couple of years ago. Anderson isn't doing anything here he hasn't done before and better, and for the first time, his stylistic flourishes completely overtake the plot.
It's not much of a plot though. The story, written by Anderson, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman, is a road-trip/travelogue/family drama concerning three estranged brothers journeying on a train through India. The brothers, played by Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Adrien Brody, are the usual Anderson specimen of man-child, each with their own layers of damage. Wilson, doing a slightly toned-down version of the same character he always plays, takes the position of leader and organizer of the trip, including hiring an assistant who types up and laminates itineraries for the brothers every morning. Brody is the middle son, whose main attribute seems to be stealing their late father's personal belongings. And co-writer Schwartzman is the youngest, eager to please, and, maybe a little implausibly, also a lady-killer.
Anderson very obviously does not care about India, aside from the way it allows the brothers to act as fish out of water. They spend a great deal of time on the titular train, which is as exhaustively detailed as the house in Tenenbaums and the boat in Aquatic. But despite all the talk of "spiritual journeys," Anderson could have filmed most of Darjeeling on a set in Burbank. Anderson was never going to make a travelogue -- his obsession with emotionally wounded upper class white Americans doesn't allow much breathing room for outsiders -- and I, for one, wouldn't want him to, but even I am taken back a little at the near-complete lack of interest in the country itself on display here. It's like a frat boy who went to Cancun for a week talking about his journey through Mexico.
I think it's just that India is too sprawling and complex to fit into Anderson's hyper-focused vision. Something happens in the middle of the film, something significant that makes the entire beginning, with the bickering, scheming and lying, seem like the waste of time that it is. And here is where I figured Anderson would drop the affectations and domino-precision of his film-making style and really let the story take over. He doesn't, of course. It's the same elaborate tracking shots and choreographed acting, more out of place than ever in this poor Indian village. And it's really a missed opportunity. The story ultimately, as with all his films, is about learning to face responsibilities and finally grow up, and he had the perfect platform to indicate this visually. After an hour's worth of running time in which the brothers are immune to everything around them but their own broken lives, Anderson could have used this event to open up the world and take a look around. By filming it in the same style as the rest, it makes the emotional impact seem as artificial as everything else.
I've always loved the artificiality of his style before, but I always figured it was tied into the movies themselves. The Tenenbaums, for instance, are trapped in childhood, with their house being a physical manifestation of their inability to move on with their lives, so of course it is packed with an insane amount of detail. Even Anderson's OCD filming style seems to be a symptom of their dysfunction, and the songs, from Rolling Stones to Charlie Brown, act as their comfort food. Darjeeling's soundtrack, on the other hand, uses many themes from Merchant/Ivory's Indian movies, which is clever if a bit precious, but it's like he's trying to buy some India cred which he clearly hasn't earned. And the camerawork this time hurts the performances, rather than bolstering them. All three of the main actors are often appealing and engaging in other projects, but here Anderson doesn't give us any reason to like them or want to spend time with them. I simply didn't care enough about any of them to wade through their seemingly endless self-journeys. Darjeeling is the shortest of the Anderson films, but feels interminable.
There is a set of luggage that the brothers spend the entire movie carting around. The baggage is given a staggering amount of screen time, and is the subject of many plot points and visual jokes. The suitcases were apparently designed by Marc Jacobs, and are, naturally, painstakingly detailed, with multi-colored animals and monograms. Two things about the luggage: 1) The payoff with the baggage is so incredibly literal and simple-minded that I wonder if Crash writer/director Paul Haggis did a script polish. 2) There couldn't be a better metaphor for Anderson himself than this bulky set of bags being carried around for far too long. His characters may have ditched theirs, but he still has a huge, immaculately designed steamer trunk on his back, weighing him down.